New York, N.Y. Given the freezing weather that has continued to plague New York City into March, spending a Saturday evening sitting poolside, feet dangling in the water, seems a strange way to pass the time. But This Is Not A Theatre Company (a group I’ve previously seen throw an immersive theatre house party and host a lecture-play-dance-along about saving the environment) thrives on just this sort of incongruous experience. This they easily proved in their March 11th performance of Pool Play 2.0, written by Jessie Bear and Charles Mee and directed by Erin B. Mee. As the title suggests, the action takes place in and around a swimming pool; the audience is seated on all sides, most with their feet in the water and in prime splashing zone. (Not to worry: You get a plastic poncho on your way in.)
It begins with a musical march (choreography by Jonathan Matthews), six of the cast members high-kneeing their way to the corners of the pool to primp and pose with varying degrees of confidence and awkwardness. When silence falls, they fill it with a collective monologue of self-consciousness—worrying about getting water in their ears, if their swimsuits (which range from delightfully retro to sleekly contemporary) make their bodies look strange, and finally, “What if someone is watching? Someone is definitely watching!” Just when it seems the actors might give up and “Come back another day,” Matthews plunges into the pool with a massive splash, silencing the others. He speaks poetically about the way being in the water makes you lose track of where it ends and your body begins.
Matthews is the linchpin of the production. His brief monologue sets the stage for the episodes that play out around the edges of, and later in, the pool. These brief scenes contextualize and re-contextualize the body of water around which the audience is gathered. It becomes a place of embarrassment for middle school students in gym class, a battleground for an embittered marriage or the civil rights movement, an endless ocean in the imagination of two sisters playing in the bath. But Matthews’ most significant contribution is his dances in—yes, in—the water which serve as both a palette cleanse from and emotional commentary upon the scenes they surround.
Matthews has a number of solos early in the work, and the movement vocabulary should be familiar to anyone who has ever gone swimming with a dancer: buoyant, slow-motion grand jetés, développés that let the leg linger by one’s ear with more ease than is normally possible on dry land, promenades (slow, flat-footed revolutions on one leg) that require frantic dog paddling to battle the water resistance. The water makes some challenging steps laughably easy while highlighting the hidden complexities of simple movements, and Matthews uses this dichotomy shift to his advantage. Most visible is his upper body, which maintains a blend of classical lines and baroque mannerisms despite whatever beautifully executed shenanigans occur below the surface. But most impressive is his musicality. The movements themselves are expertly matched to the classical music playing over the speakers, but what is startling is how even the splashes his dancing produces—an unavoidable addition to the soundscape—are timed in such a way that they are in near-perfect counterpoint to the primary melody. On its own, the choreography would be an interesting diversion, but the subtle changes within Matthews’ performance, in reaction to the scene that has played out directly before he begins, elevate these sections to a place of key importance within the arc of the play.
The rest of the ensemble gets a chance to dance as well—a quintet with Matthews directing four of his castmates as though he were a conductor set to Bobby Darin’s instantly recognizable “Splish Splash,” a finale comprised of three courtly unison duets. What they might lack in exactitude they make up for with commitment and enthusiasm; it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be.
Everything, from the acting to the dancing, is ever-so-slightly larger than life—it’s not overacting so much as a self-aware melodrama, a way of acknowledging the absurdity of the entire enterprise that then allows the audience to dive more deeply (pun not intended) into what is being communicated. It’s strangely believable when the entire cast begin to embody penguins, their physicality giggle-worthy and their words thought-provoking. The earnestness with which Kim Ima crosses the pool in an inflatable raft, paddling away as she muses on the perils of setting out into the unknown, made what could easily have been a pithy metaphor for life into the emotional through line guiding the entire work. We’re all just swimmers, rowing out to meet the unknown.
Pool Play 2.0 hits a lot of points—racism, consumerism, environmentalism, the loss of childhood fearlessness—but it hits them well. Its episodic nature lends the feeling that all of life could be captured in this 70-minute play, much like, as Sherlock Holmes muses in one story, a scientist could infer the possibility of the Atlantic from a single drop of water. And, like all of the work I’ve previously seen from this company, it does all of this while delivering consistently remarkable entertainment and brilliantly timed comedy. Pool Play 2.0 might just be their best work yet.