Theater Review: Funny and Chilling WTF World Premiere of ‘Waters Rise’ Prognosticates on Climate Change

Laura Ullman as The Suit in The Women's Theatre Festival production of WATERS RISE.
Laura Ullman as “The Suit” in The Women’s Theatre Festival production of WATERS RISE.

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker shows a shaggy guru sitting cross-legged in front of a cave dispensing wisdom to a man wearing a shirt and tie, his head and shoulders just above the water. The caption reads: “I told you to listen to the climate science.” Just such a situation is imagined in the world premiere of Justine Wiesinger’s dark comedy, Waters Rise, directed by Women’s Theatre Festival Artistic Director Ashley Popio.

Set in the not-too-distant future, communities have become isolated due to massive flooding, government news is incredibly suspect, and just to keep it interesting, some alien creatures or terrorists may be lurking about as well. How to survive? What must be done to secure the basics? And probably most importantly, what will be sacrificed?

Sarah’s shabby, but comfy, cabin is located on high ground. Crumpled cans and balled up socks under the couch/bed suggest that the situation has been dire for a while, although she has a generator to power the TV and a generous supply of junk food to live on. Sarah (Jessica Flemming) is the practical sort who is just trying to outlive this extraordinary situation with her friend, Holly (Sara Levy).

Holly’s energetic personality contrasts with Sarah’s laid-back approach. Holly still wants locally grown food, although not so much the turnips and beets their friendly neighbor, Magda (Sandra Wallace), presses on them.  Magda tries to persuade Sarah and Holly to help with her farm, advocating for self-sufficiency during this ecological crisis. Neither of them is really interested.

Things become serious once the government intrudes in the form of The Suit, played by Laurel Ullman. She is a data-spewing, coldly logical, automatron who informs the pair that they must stop spending so much time together since they are not exhibiting proper “consumer behavior.” Her twisted reasoning echoes some of the rules for female behavior pressed by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale.

What gradually emerges over the course of two acts are more questions than answers about survival. As the situation deteriorates, the tone of the play shifts from comic to deadly serious.  Flemming’s Sarah begins reasonably calm but gets angrier and more intense, winding her tighter as she is forced to make decisions based on information that changes hourly. Levy’s Holly wants to be optimistic, even conscientious, but her body begins twitching with nervousness when confronted with scary possibilities. Both women display an authentic representation of the emotional movement of their characters.

Ullman appropriately embodies The Suit with the right mixture of robo-like charm borne of unquestioned loyalty with the menace of portending evil. Her comic entrances only slightly mask her underlying sinister purposes.

As the voice in the wilderness trying to provide another alternative, Wallace’s Magda was a solid and reserved character: the mother shaking her head when her children do not listen to reason.

The final moments of this Women’s Theatre Festival production are chilling and intense, exploring and exploding our assumptions as to how to react in a world where the predictions of the climate scientists have come true. But you’ll have to come to your own conclusions about The Other, the man behind the mask.

The Women’s Theatre Festival production of Waters Rise runs through October 13th at Shadowbox Studios in Durham. For more information, visit https://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/watersrise or the RDU on Stage Calendar Page for a performance schedule.

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