On Saturday, June 10th, Staff Writer Frankie DeGiorgio and Arts Editor Grace Novarr attended Clubbed Thumb’s Deep Blue Sound at The Wild Project in the East Village. The play was part of the production company’s Summerworks Festival and was written by Abe Koogler and directed by Arin Arbus.
After hearing from the Barnard Theatre Department about the second play of the Summerworks programming, we made the trip downtown to the small East Village theater. Unfolding the program, we recognized many Barnumbia affiliates credited on Deep Blue Sound and other Summerworks performances, even spotting a few fellow students in the small crowd forming on 3rd Street. As we found our seats in the theater, we were eager to see a professional work with so many familiar names behind it.
One such familiar name was Elena Messinger (CC ‘22.5), co-director of Columbia University Players’ Dr. Ride’s American Beach House. For Deep Blue Sound, they worked as a Production Assistant. Bwog asked Elena about the process of transitioning from student theater to a professional space. In a text message, they shared: “Working on Deep Blue Sound felt like a great way of regularly accessing and speaking to professionals, and generally seeing what a full rehearsal process looks like; I think that was beneficial at least in demystifying professional theater and understanding that it really does feel like an extension of the work we’ve done in undergrad.”
Messinger also shared some advice about breaking into the theater world after graduation that they had received from the professionals involved in the production and Clubbed Thumb: “Just keep making your own work wherever you can, whenever possible. Internaliz[e] that getting to be in rooms as an observer or assistant is great, but really starting to put energy into just putting stuff up has been a huge part of this process.”
The play began with the actors nonchalantly walking onstage and introducing the characters they portrayed, setting the intimate tone of the production. In Deep Blue Sound, an eclectic collection of Pacific Northwest islanders come together to try to figure out where the pod of orca whales that appear off the coast of the island every year have suddenly disappeared to. Led by over-eager ceremonially elected mayor Annie—played by Barnard Theatre professor Crystal Finn—the group’s search for the orcas inevitably reveals more about each other than the oceanic mystery they are trying to solve.
Design Collective dots transformed The Wild Project’s intimate space into a neglected community rec room, walls painted a displeasing teal-blue, unattractive carpet scattered with mismatched chairs and other pieces of furniture that the actors shifted around the space to suggest different locations. In the opening scene of the play, the actors collected the chairs into a semi-circle at the front of the stage and addressed the audience directly, explaining what primary and secondary characters they played but assuring us that we “shouldn’t try to keep track,” accompanied by delighted laughter from the audience.
Indeed, much of Koogler’s script was punctuated with humor, supported by the cast’s sharp delivery and expert understanding of their characters. Jan Leslie Harding as awkward horse-groomer Les, or “Leslie for long,” was a frequent subject of the comedic beats in the play, until her aching loneliness and naivety in falling for a man met through a pen pal service left the audience more sympathetic to her lack of social skills. Finn’s Annie was a lovably enthusiastic “mayor” trying to make the best of her position despite her own misgivings about her ability to organize. Another highlight was her less frequent, yet no less impactful, performance as a mother of a young son whose dreams of being a dancer are impeded by his lack of dancing skills. Finn portrayed the mother’s attempt to find a balance between blind encouragement and realistic feedback with extremely apt pained expressions—these short moments between mother and son are some of the most hilarious and heart-warming parts of the play.
Despite its light-hearted moments, Deep Blue Sound carries a melancholic tone throughout the piece, especially through the character of Ella. Maryann Plunkett plays a woman dying of cancer with powerful resoluteness and quiet fear as she struggles to make sense of her impending death. Instead of continuing chemotherapy treatments that don’t seem to be working, Ella decides on a date for her physician-assisted suicide, keeping this from everyone in her life except for former big-city reporter Joy (Natsuko Ohama), who she has asked to write her obituary. Plunkett’s Ella is simultaneously unwavering in her decisions and full of regret, as she turns away from everyone who loves her and shrinks into herself, and the performance is one of the most moving and heart-wrenching of the play. However, the entire ensemble cast is stellar, and all play their nuanced, complicated, and pained characters with undeniable expertise.
Many of Deep Blue Sound’s directorial choices kept the already snappy and succinct script at a quick and digestible pace. Scenes often overlapped, with various characters in different conversations on stage and lighting cues shifting the audience’s attention to the characters in focus, while still keeping the other figures illuminated, hinting at the literal and metaphorical web of experiences that connect the members of this small town. Scenes shifted from one to the next seamlessly, with actors placing set pieces and props into position with practiced speed. This gave a frantic urgency to the otherwise sleepy atmosphere of the island, illustrating how disconcerting this sudden disappearance of the whales was to the islanders.
The play was riddled with disquieting and eerie moments: a side comment in the beginning about a dog with a blood-lust who had bred with wolves in the woods, the gruff woodcutter “Homeless Gary” (Bruce McKenzie) who carried his chainsaw with him everywhere he went, and the scene of seemingly out-of-place, genuine horror towards the play’s end. All of these moments, even ones with little on-stage resolution, compounded the unsettling feeling of the audience as both they and the characters in the play reckoned with the state of the world amidst a warming climate with the power to change the familiar forever. And in such a destabilizing global time, Deep Blue Sound argues that there is no better thing to do than turn to each other, to accept help when you need it, to find comfort in the people that love you, and to try to be better for those you love.
Deep Blue Sound is running at The Wild Project until June 15th. Tickets for this show and the upcoming Summerworks play Grief Hotel, running from June 21st to July 1st, can be purchased on the Clubbed Thumb website.
Header image via Clubbed Thumb