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Dark Water

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Diánna Martin and Chester Poon.
Photo by Louise Flory.
Imagine a show that features music, tap dancing, adorable turtle puppets, a kind-hearted dolphin, and a couple of playful frogs named Pad and Lily. Sounds like something for the kids, right?

Well, maybe not so right. Not when the show is the nightmarish excursion into Grand Guignol known as Dark Water, a gripping new work by David Stallings. In it, the playwright takes the scalpel to the impact on marine and wetlands life of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was the largest such accident in history, causing countless deaths to sea life, with aftereffects that are being felt to this day.

Dark Water, a production of Manhattan Theatre Works at the 14th Street Y, is truly a remarkable feat of writing. In creating a drama equal to the task of relating this devastating event, Stallings has immersed himself in the literary style of the Jacobean playwrights—rhyming couplets and all—piling on visceral images that would make Sweeney Todd seem pale by comparison.

Things start out pleasantly enough. You enter the theater on a waterfront scene, a set of concrete stairs leading down to the beach, with little sea creatures hanging from the sides. In the foreground, you can hear the waves coming in, and in the distance the unmistakable sounds of toe-tapping New Orleans jazz.

Then out steps Gullet, a bloodthirsty seagull and a supremely nasty piece of business (played to the hilt by Brian Silliman), who declares: "Today is a day for entrails!"

Indeed it is.

But first, the rest of the players. The story centers on a quest by Barnacle (Diánna Martin), a savvy sea turtle who sets out to rescue her daughters from the encroaching oil-and-tar-choked "dark water." She is accompanied on her journey by her hotheaded son Weed (Chester Poon), who so angers Gullet that the bird spends much of the rest of the play plotting his murder.

Along the way, they encounter many other creatures, few of whom understand the threat of annihilation that they face. One who does is the compassionate dolphin Daedalus (played with melt-your-heart charm by Antonio Miniño), who speaks in alliterative phrases and longs—like Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Mermaid"—to walk on land and express his love for a woman who had helped to rescue some of those who were harmed in a previous oil spill. Daedalus offers to help by allowing Barnacle to ride on his back as they swim towards the "dark water" on the rescue mission. Also on the heroes' team is Foam (Erica Lauren McLaughlin), another young sea turtle who becomes Weed's friend, then mate, then the designated bearer of possibility for future generations.

Others we encounter are more like Gullet, selfish and cruel and heartless. There is the fish Sheepshead (Susan G. Bob), who—before she became too old to produce eggs—would eat her offspring, both to satisfy her hunger and, as she claims, to prevent their starving in their habitat, a dying reef that she treats as her fiefdom. ("To save them, I ate them," she explains nonchalantly).

Then there is Blue Heron, vain, territorial, and vicious as the others of her ilk, brilliantly played by Kathleen O'Neill in an utterly perfect set piece that seems to have sprung from the mind of a most perverse Lewis Carroll or deranged Aesop.

As Barnacle continues on her desperate journey, there are still others we meet—a pair of frogs, a wily crocodile named Tears (Lily Drexler), Charmer the snake (Stephen Conrad Moore), and the goddess Sea Urchin (Emily Hartford)—and the playwright has given each of them a distinct personality and purpose. It is clear that director Heather Cohn and the cast are thoroughly committed to the production, with several of the actors called upon to play two or three roles, sing a cappella, and even tap dance as they depict a world gone mad due to human greed and interference with nature.

By the time we have reached the end of the perilous journey, there have been entrails galore, and all that remains is a thread of hope through the rescue of a few of Weed's sisters. Even that bit of hope is a precarious one, as the floating and spreading oil catches fire, forcing the wildlife to flee or die.

All told, Dark Water is a breathtaking work, a rich and powerful allegory that is both exceptionally literate and a searing cautionary tale and call to arms of the sort that seldom finds its way onto a stage. It deserves to be widely seen and talked about and acted upon.

But you should probably leave the kids at home, unless you are prepared to do a lot of explaining before and after the performance.

Dark Water
Through March 29
Theater at 14th Street, 334 East 14th Street (14th Street YMCA)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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