CAMBRIDGE — When friendship turns to envy, the results are both crushing and liberating. At least, that’s the theme of “pool (no water),” the playfully poisonous theatrical piece now at Oberon through Saturday.
British playwright Mark Ravenhill takes the notion of ensemble theater to another level when he uses the collective mind of a group of nameless friends as the narrators in his 2006 memory play. The One Year Lease Theater Company mounted “pool (no water)” in New York in 2012; it is presenting it here with three of the performers from that production. The five actors — Estelle Bajou, Eric Berryman, Nick Flint, Richard Saudek, and Maja Wampuszyc — act as a unit, offering a kind of extended monologue, completing each other’s sentences, reinforcing their reactions, moving in unison in choreography that references the physicality of their emotions and the poetic rhythms of Ravenhill’s staccato-like dialogue.
A decade after art school, with plenty of fund-raisers, small gallery openings, and benefits for heroin babies to their credit, a group of friends have hit an artistic dead end. One of them, however, has gone on to phenomenal success, moving to the land of palm trees, where she boasts a house with a staff and a pool. The group’s response to her success is a mixture of admiration and resentment, but it shifts to angry recriminations when one member of their group dies, and they irrationally blame the successful one for destroying the balance essential to the group’s survival. “None of us was meant to be wealthy,” they say. “We’re the group.”
But when that successful artist invites them out for a visit, they take her up on the offer. Almost immediately, a horrible accident shifts the balance of the group again. The successful one has been reduced to a bruised and broken heap, and they visit her in the hospital day after day, unable to do anything but watch her and, of course, make themselves comfortable in her house and with her staff.
At some point, someone takes out a camera. They are artists, after all, and if they need to shift the hospital bed or some of her tubes for better composition or more effective lighting, well, why not transform life’s torment into art? Art is about opportunity, they reason.
What follows is a dance of anticipation of acclaim with shame for taking advantage of their friend’s situation. That itchy, uncomfortable struggle to rationalize their sometimes despicable behavior makes these characters irresistible. The combination of Ravenhill’s disjointed, almost hypnotic text with choreographer Natalie Lomonte’s languid choreography creates a fascinating effect that allows us to see these people as individuals one moment and a single collective voice the next.
Director Ianthe Demos uses five white benches as extensions of the group’s tangled thought processes, stacking them, tipping them, tilting them as a kind of physical reassurance of their sometimes questionable motives. Although Ravenhill becomes a little precious at the end, this 60-minute descent into self-delusion offers a haunting and occasionally humorous window into the lengths people might be willing to go in pursuit of fame.
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.