Metaphor saves Rising Water from drowning
John Biguenet's 2007 play Rising Water is the first Hurricane Katrina-spawned play to receive national attention, but the theatrical equivalent of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke it is not.
Instead of documentary, dramatized history or agenda-driven drama, Rising Water, which is receiving its first production outside New Orleans at Fullerton's Maverick Theater, is claustrophobically personal, focusing on a "no longer young" married couple who awake at 2 a.m. the morning of Aug. 30, 2005, in a house filled 3 feet deep with water. With nowhere to go but up, they hastily flee to their cramped attic and, finally, their roof.
Facing the increasing possibility of drowning or roasting to death when sweltering August night turns into scorching August day, the couple pass the time talking about everything from the prospects of rescue to remembering the past—which always carries the possibility of stirring up submerged issues.
Meanwhile, a city has pitched headlong into a hellish abyss—one that, three years later, it's still trying to crawl out of. But even though Biguenet is a New Orleans author who wrote a play set against the backdrop of his city's great anguish, he didn't write it as symbol, rallying cry, anguished lamentation or history lesson.
What he did write is an eloquent, poignant, even disarmingly funny play. But also one lacking a sense of rising tension, which is surprising, since few things would seem more intense than the prospect of impending death.
Some of that might rest with this production. As charming and earthily funny as actors Veda and Rick Franklin are as the couple, Camille and Sugar, they occasionally milk moments a bit longer than necessary. Every pause not built in by the playwright disrupts the deceptively lyrical ebb and flow of his language.
But the real lack of urgency, strangely enough, comes from what might be the most refreshing aspect of Biguenet's play: His characters aren't anything more than what they are. Camille and Sugar are not symbols of his city's heartbreak. They're not scrappy survivors imbued with an indomitable Nawlins spirit. They're not helpless or angry victims blindsided by a natural disaster made worse through human folly.
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They're just people with a shared history who wake up to a nightmare that's just beginning for the city they live in. That makes them believable, but it doesn't make them particularly compelling. And very little of what they say makes them any more interesting. Sugar has a sweet tooth, tells a good ghost story, used to drink a lot and knows Madonna's real name. Camille fantasizes about Sean Connery and misses wearing masks at Mardi Gras.
Of course, baggage has accumulated over 30 years. But even the most painful of memories don't seem to stick to characters so thinly drawn. Yet there is something that keeps Biguenet's play afloat, and that's called metaphor. For even though Rising Water isn't a finger-pointing diatribe, there's no mistaking what's really going on. It's impossible to not connect the story of a married couple dislodging buried topics with the larger story of how Katrina exposed deep cultural and social fissures in at least one part of America. Though that story is rarely addressed in Rising Water, it's never too far from the surface.
That's borne out late in the play, when the sound of a distant alarm is heard. Camille wonders if it's a rescue boat. Sugar explains it's just a house alarm going off in someone's attic. "They all start wailing, one after another, as the batteries go down," he says. "It's meant to be a warning the system's broken."
Rising Water at the Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m. Through May 31. $10-$20.