This world premiere of a one act play by Doug Phillips is a work of futuristic hyper-naturalism that grabs us by the jugular because it seems perfectly logical and almost too plausible.
The remnants of a poor family sit around the table discussing family matters that almost seem banal. In the first few minutes, Phillips sets out his clues. The family is steeped in misery, water is lacking and there are fires in the area which has become a sort of agricultural waste – land managed by sharecroppers. Something weird is happening in the barn behind the house, as the scraping sounds ignite our curiosity. Then, there is some terrible secret hanging over them all. We meet the family members at that point and it doesn’t take us long to see that sister Ellen is suffering the loss of a loved one, that young Kelsie is waiting for her new date, that Charlie her father is also Ellen’s brother and he is the tortured head of this “natural” family. The atmosphere suggests Eugene O’Neil’s grungy realism especially since the characters could possibly be the actors themselves and we wonder where this is going.
Then the bomb hits us as the play moves on about half a century. There is no point spoiling the rest of the evening with too much information but Beneath becomes a terrifying look into the future of the world, the logical conclusion of events that are currently playing out for all to see on our TV sets or in the media and it appears too late to change anything.
The second movement of the play explains the social set up of the family, gives more personal details, and reveals a shocking event that has changed the history and social conditions of Canada, subjected to the progression of the extreme right-wing on our American continent.
Act two introduces Hannah, the government representative who has come to make the family an offer that it cannot refuse. The conditions are draconian but she is probably lying in any case so there seems to be no hope, and then, the evening comes to an end.
Phillips knows how to build horror, and tension, and astonishment as he plucks details from the present-day. The kitchen table which provides the central piece of furniture becomes a new image for this “kitchen sink” drama that so shocked British theatre in the 1950’s but that announces in this setting, a new era of oppression, of mistrust, of patriarchal domination that feeds off American naturalism in a similar way.
When Beneath suddenly ends, one feels it can’t be finished yet! It appears to be a theatrical prologue preparing us for what comes next. Many conflicts erupt, a terrifying future is announced, people are involved in disturbing relationships as the world sombers into a creeping form of dictatorship but nothing is really resolved. It has to continue in future episodes!!!. Unless of course that the meaning of all this is a tableau of utter despair. It could be.
The actors who appear to be themselves many years from now, can’t help but become immersed in their own drama under the expert direction of Doug Phillips. This is a special experience that you might not want to miss!
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht
Beneath plays at the the Studio Leonard Beaulne , University of Ottawa Studio theatre, on August 17, 18, 19, 26, 26 at 7h30; tickets are 20$ at the door. Call 613-285-4833 for information.
A production of the NW9 Theatre collective
Written and directed by Doug Phillips
performed by Dylan Abrames, Kelsie Bennett, Charlie Ebbs, Hannah Gibson-Fraser, Ellen Manchee who had to replace an ailing Bev Wolfe.