A Leviathan Nightmare

Photography by Andy Walsh

It is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but vigilant and insomniac rationality.                     Giles Deluze

by Jeff Grygny

Genre fiction is the culture’s subconscious; beneath the recycled tropes, plots and characters, we can sense the unspoken anxieties and drives of our collective dreaming. This can certainly be said of The Depths, a tightly-focused study in claustrophobia and paranoia that is currently on offer by Quasimondo Physical Theatre. With the economical storytelling of the graphic novels that it strongly resembles, playwright/director Andrew Parchman delivers an entertaining, if chilly, Kubrickian satire of neoliberal technocracy.

We discover Lilith Hooper, a willing subject in a high-tech experiment fronted by a giant corporation with interests in undersea operations. In the interests of maximizing their labor force, she is dosed with a drug called “Ink,” that enables her to remain fully functional 24 hours a day. To make the study even more intense, she’s been submersed in a high-tech diving suit, seven miles below sea level, solo, for almost a month.  We see her performing banal and repetitive tasks, supported only by a spotty audio link with a remote mothership, regular visitations by a robotic drone that siphons off her bodily wastes, and an incredibly chirpy AI assistant—whom she’s come to loathe. The only novelty comes from her occasional encounters with deep-sea fauna.

Photography by Andy Walsh.

A visual artist and extraordinarily gifted sculptor, Parchman approaches his tale from a design perspective, fashioning spare, monochromatic compositions like ink-wash illustrations. His elegant puppet creations express kinetic intelligence and character. Behind a stage-wide fabric scrim that diffuses light sources into little nebulas and blurs details to a fuzzy video-like quality. Figures  materialize out of velvety darkness, hovering  like unmoored Freudian imagoes: playful fish, the boxy submersible drone, an adorable sea slug, a terrifying face-hugging squid-creature, and a giant angler fish whose first appearance is an epiphany of human smallness in the face of the unknown. This is a show about bodies, not faces: all the performers are encased in skin-tight fabric that covers every inch of flesh; all we see of Hesper Juhnke’s Lilith is a mask-like strip of eyes behind a transparent visor.

Photography by Andy Walsh.

The extremely limber cast becomes the scenery as well as the characters. In varied, athletic movement, created by Parchman with the ensemble, they sometimes seem to fuse together as a single organism, or float Juhnke’s body around to simulate weightlessness. She holds the action admirably, nearly always onstage, and even though her face is concealed, she projects a strong character of determination and courage. Effective voice acting by the ensemble succeeds in the genre task of not throwing us out of the narrative. Interestingly, the visuals have the most power when they seem like a film projected on the fabric screen, when we forget that the action is taking place in actual 3D space, animated by living bodies.

Within his austere palette, Parchman ranges from goofy humor to cosmic horror. Everything has the sterile, institutional mood so familiar to fans of anime such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell—not unlike the modern workplace, where petty routines and insipid cheer mask covert agendas. As Lilith begins to depart from corporate protocol, she experiences anomalies that are first annoying, then disturbing, then finally becoming a sanity-threatening vortex.

We’re left to decide for ourselves whether she succumbs to a high-tech rapture of the deep or is the subject of far more fantastic designs. Either way, The Depths paints a creepy picture of technological over-reach and late-stage capitalism; an acerbic warning that, as we are more and more drawn into the virtual worlds of social media and computer games, it’s still a survival skill to be able to tell reality from delusion.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre presents
The Depths
written and directed by Andrew Parchman

playing through December 10th

Danceworks Studio Theatre, 1661 N. Water St.