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Underland

Theatre Review by Howard Miller


Jens Rasmussen and Georgia Cohen
Photo by Hunter Canning.

The quarry is hungry and must be fed. This is what you need to keep in mind throughout Underland, Alexandra Collier's dystopian fever dream of a play, a production of terraNOVA Collective at 59E59 Theaters, in which the living, the marked-for-death, and the already-dead freely intermingle through a hellish terrain.

Underland is definitely no Wonderland, even if it does pay a sort of homage to Lewis Carroll late in the 100-minute intermissionless production. Forget the master's gentle absurdity, however. This sojourn is more like a trip through Dante's "Inferno" or a particularly unpleasant corner of the Twilight Zone. Its territory is a bleak and parched piece of the Australian desert, where two bored and cranky teenage schoolgirls—Ruth (Kiley Lotz) and Violet (Angeliea Stark)—spend their free time attempting to dig their way to China in order to escape their stultifying lives. Their activities mimic those that are taking place at the nearby quarry, where the mechanical clang of digging is constant, though to what ends no one seems to know. The quarry, however, does seem to be a place where dead and dismembered bodies turn up with some regularity. The locals blame it on the crocodiles.

At first, it seems that we might be watching a coming-of-age tale about Ruth and Violet, especially as their teachers resemble the kinds of caricatures that teenagers tend to evoke and mock. There's Mr. B. (Jens Rasmussen), their strict and demanding physical education teacher; Mrs. Butterfat (Annie Golden), the religion teacher who is partial to late night bicycle rides and who spends a good deal of time conversing with her late husband; and Miss Harmony (Georgia Cohen), the art teacher and a newcomer to the scene, a free-spirited hippie whose easygoing ways make her a favored target of the girls. But as the evening progresses and a pervasive air of dread rolls in like a gaseous cloud, any such interpretation falls by the wayside.

That Ruth and Violet occasionally smoke pot and ingest "magic mushrooms" is very much in keeping with the hallucinogenic and surreal quality of the play, in which—among other things—a lost, dazed, and confused Japanese businessman (Daniel K. Isaac) suddenly shows up, having crawled through a hole that has mysteriously appeared near his Tokyo office. The world is asunder, and no one fares well in this landscape, which is home to both reptilian and human predators that are quick stalk and kill (the word "quarry" has more than one meaning here). Even in the end, when (perhaps) the girls have survived and escaped the apocalyptic scene, we're not sure if they will wind up in the China of their dreams or simply in another circle of hell.

Much credit must go to the cast and to director Mia Rovegno for finding the dark heart of the play. We even get to hear a bit of Annie Golden's lovely singing voice (even through what she sings is a discomfiting "lullabye" about bloodthirsty crocodiles). All told, this journey to Underland makes for a rather disconcerting and disorienting theatrical experience.


Underland
Through April 25
59E59 Theaters - Theater B, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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