Lake Untersee

by John Stoltenberg

Rocky, a 15-year-old boy from a broken home, goes in search of  the boy whom he loves. That’s it; that’s pretty much the story. But mix this adolescent quest with evocative metaphors, add some beautifully lyric poetry, chill over lots of ice—and you get the surprisingly intoxicating concoction that is playwright Joe Waechter‘s  Lake Untersee.

One of three full-length plays world-premiering in DC’s Source Festival, Lake Untersee contains some wonderfully imagined elements. Primary among them is Noah Chiet‘s embodiment of  Rocky. For someone who is himself not yet 15, Chiet brings a remarkable range of emotional truthfulness to his role. When choking on inexpressible feelings—as with his disfunctional parents—his Rocky utters gutteral sounds (somewhere between a bark and a croak) that begin as a running gag but then become heart-wrenching. This kid has acting chops. Chiet’s performance alone is reason enough to see this production.

Another wonder to behold is Waechter’s central conceit, which is that Rocky’s youthful crush, Charlie, is buried under eons of ice in Antarctica’s Lake Untersee—and Rocky must get to him and rescue him. Yeah, I know, as a metaphor for a boy’s homoerotic infatuation—frozen below the surface, untouched by adult warmth, requiring a high-risk solo self-discovery trek—that harsh, chilly image sounds interesting on paper. But how the heck can it work on stage? Incredibly, it pretty much does, the actors’ artful delivery of Waechter’s poetic speeches aided and abetted by Joseph Walls’s startling stark lighting and Roni Lancaster’s sound design featuring blizzards and glacial ice.

Thanks in part to The Inkwell, the Lake Untersee script has been in development for a couple years—and, to be honest, it still plays like a work in progress. A few scenes fall flat. For a play with such a tender emotional core, the character of Rocky’s mother seems over-the-top cartoonish; his father, too much a stiff cliché. And the too-familiar story of their marital strife resembles a warmed-over TV dinner. So I don’t think the text is yet ready to be, um, frozen.

But Waechter is definitely on to something good.

Actually the next most interesting character after Rocky is his dad’s live-in girlfriend, Gale (Liz Osborn), who is—just simply—really nice. Rocky and Gale have a scene together that is sweetly moving; we see Rocky realize she genuinely cares about him; we see him stop barking/croaking and open up to her. You’d think a character whose basic trait is ordinary niceness would be rather a bore on stage, but somehow Waechter and Osborn have made her fascinating.

Throughout the play, Rocky intrepidly pursues his (emotional) rescue mission, with a cool twist at the end.  Once we get that by rescuing his longed-for love, Rocky is actually saving himself, his single-minded story becomes en route one of those original theatrical turns that can suddenly hook one’s heart and prompt a tear or two. Like when a winter thaws.

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