“The Big Wave”
The 2018 edition of the annual Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters is here, starting with the touching We Live By [sic] the Sea, a well-executed work of devised theatre created by the Patch of Blue company and coproduced with the Hartshorn-Hook Foundation. It’s been seen in England, Scotland (where it was a Fringe award nominee), Australia, and China; it even played a week last fall at Off Broadway’s SoHo Playhouse.
|Alexandra Brain. Photo: Kale Pardey.|
For the project, the company did extensive research, assisted by the National Autistic Society, and with the consultation of a woman, Robyn Steward, whose personal story the program declares “inspired the narrative.” Director Alex Howarth himself has been working as a drama therapist with autistic people for 15 years.
|Alexandra Brain. Photo: Kale Pardey.|
Males have long been considered more likely to be on the spectrum than females but the gender gap is actually much narrower than that; We Live By the Sea gives voice to girls with the disorder.
Devised theatre, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to collaborative works, usually with no credited writer, typically using minimalist sets, projections, microphones, found objects that can serve multiple purposes, original music (with the musicians—when they’re not the actors themselves—part of the action), and a host of theatricalist conventions mingling realism with fourth-wall smashing. A boat sail is the most prominent scenic element, used mainly as a screen for images of the sea and of Katy on the beach. (Amelia Wall is the videographer, Will Monks the video designer.)
In We Live By the Sea the original music, just right for the material, is composed and played by the two Mason Brothers, situated up left where they create the impression of numerous instruments—listed by Katy at the top of the play. There’s also a touch of familiar pop, like Abba’s “Dancing Girl,” given a dreamy rendition as the play is about to start.
When the audience enters the enclave’s Theater B, two young women are sitting on the floor just outside the auditorium, asking if they can tap your shoes. These are the actresses who, once the play starts, will be playing Katy and her imaginary dog, Paul Williams (Lizzie Grace). Paul is named not for the American song writer but for someone whose identity is eventually revealed in the play.
|Alexandra Brain, Lizzie Grace. Photo: Kale Pardey.|
The shoe-tapping is part of the ritualistic behavior—similar to OCD—that Katy engages in regularly, which includes the colors she wears daily, her teeth brushing, what she eats at tea, and so on, all of it shared with the conversationally adept Paul Williams, who gives her moral support and with whom she speaks a secret language. Katy’s afraid of crowds, resists being touched, and has a host of other dislikes. Among her likes are the sea, especially a big wave she describes, and telling stories.
Katy’s a lonely girl, bullied and ridiculed at school, and dependent largely on her older sister; her father died a year ago and her mother, who’s mentioned but doesn’t appear, keeps her distance. Hannah, luckily, treats Katy with infinite love and patience; however—as on a drive to the zoo—even she can find it difficult to maintain her calm when Katy’s erratic behavior threatens to become dangerous.
|Alexandra Simonet, Tom Coliandris. Photo: Kale Pardey.|
A soothing influence arrives in the presence of a nice-looking, 18-year-old boy, Ryan (Tom Coliandris), who has just moved to this seaside place, with his mother, from a densely crowded urban environment. Ryan bears the burden of an only vaguely defined tragedy involving his best friend, Max, who appears to have died from drugs, a situation for which Ryan feels responsible.
This background is only sketchily alluded to as a way of giving Ryan his own cross to bear, but he otherwise appears as a deeply kind young man who finds Katy’s lack of filters refreshing. His response to Katy is nonjudgmental and open, which allows the defensive girl (and Paul Williams) to welcome him as a friend. Hannah, too, stressed as she is, finds in Ryan a possible savior although he may not be quite as ready for the possibility of romance as she.
|Alexandra Brain, Tom Coliandris, Lizzie Grace. Photo: Kale Pardey.|
The dramatic plotting in We Live By the Sea is arranged mainly to express Katy’s fantasies (she self-dramatizes her involvement as a princess in a tale of knights-in-shining armor battling dragons), her pleasures and her pains, and her difficulties in accommodating herself to the way the world—particularly at school—perceives her. Articulate and even poetic, despite her nonstop verbal tics, she can instantly revert to infantile rhetoric.
Alexandra Brain, a gifted young actress wearing white, overall-style shorts whose shoulder straps are constantly hanging loose, plays Katy like an overgrown six-year-old, wearing large, headphone-like ear protectors to avoid loud noises. She squeals, fidgets, shakes her hands tremulously, holds them to her head as if to prevent it from exploding, and in many similar ways captures a girl on a perpetual emotional tightrope. She can be sad, she can be funny; with Katy, you never know what’s coming.
Grace’s Paul Williams, wearing a white T-shirt saying “Paul Williams,” is like a smiling, friendly puppy of a teenage girl, only her occasional scratching of her neck revealing her canine proclivities. Both Coliandris and Simonet are wonderfully authentic and appealing; we can’t but help hoping they’ll eventually get together.
The play’s message of the importance of accepting those who may be different from us is old-hat but nonetheless important. We Live By the Sea has some lovely visual moments, like the one with fairy lights (Rachel Sampley is the lighting designer) in Katy’s room, and, for the most part, does a nice job of expressing the play's moods without overkill.
On the other hand, the piece seems overlong at 90 minutes. Brain offers a tour de force portrayal of Katy’s mannerisms but, like me, you may grow tired of them, no matter how well acted. Then again, maybe that’s the point.
59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through May 6