by John Stoltenberg
I would not have thought that a play about dreadful disaster could be done as a droll and delightfully dark comedy, but Playwright Gabrielle Reisman did. Having lived through Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans, she sought to find theatrical form for what she witnessed there about survivors’ resilience in the face of mass catastrophe. She did not want the work to be a glum bummer, as she told me (in so many words) when we chatted on opening night. It had to be good-humored and funny and hopeful. And by golly that’s exactly what’s now on stage at Anacostia Playhouse in Theater Alliance’s regional premiere of Reisman’s Flood City.
The correlative calamity Reisman chose to write about was the 1889 Great Flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when a shoddily constructed dam owned by rich people gave way after a deluge and 2,000 working-class townspeople drowned, their homes and belongings washed downriver.
The opening of Flood City evokes that event with shocking vividness. Out of the darkness, Sound Designer Matthew M. Nielson blasts the roar of crashing water crushing everything in its path. Lighting Designer Max Doolittle illuminates a ceiling by Scenic Designer Andrew Cohen and Properties/Set Dressing Designer Patti Kalil where chairs, lamps, windows, and other oddments seem afloat atop rippling reflections. In this stagecraft tour de force, it is as if we the audience—seated on opposite sides of a wide rustic dock—are ourselves underwater. Then two mournful figures emerge, two women who miraculously survived: Val (Lolita Marie), who lost her entire family, and Stacey (Kari Ginsburg), whose family was spared. In an agony of antiphonic poetry, these two awesome actors tell of the epic horror and hardship and then suddenly…
In walks Producing Artistic Director Colin Hovde to give his chipper pre-show speech! Marie and Ginsburg are like: who is this dude? and what’s he doing in our scene? And instantly we the audience are given permission to find this and all the rest of the play’s astonishing juxtapositions hilarious.
I found the humor in Flood City so distinctive in form and voice, in fact, I’m tempted to brand it Reismanesque. A choice example is the character of Clive, played terrifically by Ryan Tumulty, who appears with a six-inch length of pipe sticking out of his skull lodged there by force of floodwater. The pipe functions as an absurd running gag (Tumulty cringes in pain anytime anyone touches it, and he’s so convincing I winced each time too). Reisman also utilizes Clive’s head ornament in a crazy-weird subplot where connivers hustle his freakish healing powers.
I know: on paper, how can exploitation of Clive’s misfortune be funny? How can we both feel his pain and laugh at the con? By some comic alchemy, Reisman pulls it off.
Running through Flood City is even a shrewd metacommentary on the exploitation of misfortune. For instance, there’s a scene where Val and Stacey sell small personal objects found after the flood as souvenirs to “disaster tourists”—each trinket with a touching story they make up.
In another flourish of dramaturgical derring-do, Reisman takes the story of the Great Flood natural disaster and layers onto it the story of an economic disaster that occurred in Johnstown a century later: In 1992 Bethlehem Steel shuttered its plant and put its entire labor force out of work.
Val, Stacey, and Clive stay in the flood story yet they sometimes walk into the factory story still dressed in Costume Designer Kelsy Hunt’s distressed period garb. Four other actors appear in both stories, their time frame readily readable thanks to Hunt’s impressive costume plot.
Jared Shamburger is Evan, an amusingly inexperienced guard trying to maintain order after the flood; then he becomes Brick, a laid-off factory worker. The amazing Kerri Rambow is a persnickety nurse tending to flood survivors; then she becomes Carol, a brash barkeep serving the laid off. Matty Griffiths also transits deftly back and forth in time, making swift costume changes in between, first as Kelly a charlatan then as Greg an unemployed steelworker. And Carlos Saldaña is first Mr. Stewart, a newspaper photographer sent to document the disaster (in another silly-serious Reismaneque twist, Mr. Stewart has Stacey pose as a corpse, there being no actual bodies left about). Saldaña as Dale then joins his busted buds carousing at Carol’s bar.
None of this time traveling and character shifting could work without the clarity and vigor that Director Jenna Duncan has emphatically provided. And Movement Director Jonathan David Martin stages not only some combat but some charming choreography, the exhilarating high point of which has the company in the bar paired off in couples and dancing to “Tunnel of Love” played on an antique jukebox.
Near the end both the flood and factory narratives converge in Reismann’s imagining of an economic boom brought about in Johnstown when the steel plant gets converted to a gambling casino—a dubious basis for community prosperity if ever there was. And Reismann’s signature comedy that comes of juxtaposing discordant elements reaches its sentimental-cynical pinnacle when we are exhorted by her resilient revelers in the casino,
Feel your luck now!
Every day you are alive you are lucky!
Funnily enough, that’s not exactly a feel-good ending. We’re all thisclose to catastrophe, we’re all just shooting craps—but isn’t our fortune just hilarious? Well yes, damn right—to hear Gabrielle Reisman tell.
Flood City at Theater Alliance is an immensely enjoyable and wildly original ride on a torrent of audacious comedy. It’s like comic relief for when disaster relief is not enough.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.