Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Water Engine

Oasis Theatre Company
Review by Wally Gordon

Also see Rob's review of Bonnie and Clyde

Matthew Montoya, James Jenner, and Tallis Rose
Photo by Brenda Lynn Bynum
"America is a great dream of greed," intones one of the innumerable characters in the odd David Mamet tragicomedy currently playing in Santa Fe.

The Water Engine is a thought-provoking 90 minutes of theater by one of the great masters of the medium. It has 19th-century echoes back to the inventions of Isaac Singer and Alexander Graham Bell and 21st-century resonance to Steve Jobs at Apple as well as current efforts to build a hydrogen-powered car. There is even an eerie parallel to President Trump's slogan "Make America great again" in a character's declaration, "We made this country great and once again it shall be great."

Although this play, originally written for National Public Radio and first produced on stage in 1977, packs less of an emotional wallop than some of Mamet's later masterworks, it latches onto a basic contradiction of American capitalism, and once it comes to grip with its theme, it locks onto it with the bite and persistence of a bulldog. The question implicitly posed is: Why does a society that brags about its devotion to change, progress and innovation suppress, harass, and try to destroy its most inventive talents?

Much as Singer and Bell and Jobs managed to grab credit and wealth from the innovative genius of others, so Charlie Gross (Nicholas Ballas) is persecuted for making an engine that runs on water by generating hydrogen. Such an engine, Ballas insists to skeptics, could drive a car or fly an airplane.

The stage is long and narrow and has no set, but there are several props suggesting a 1934 radio studio in Chicago. The characters are all seated in a row in the back and hold scripts from which they read. Their readings concern the virtues of American capitalism, the so-called "century of progress," the supposed rewards of chain letters, various local incidents, and the recent celebration of Chicago's 100th anniversary. Meanwhile Gross and two corrupt lawyers (played by James Jenner and Matthew Montoya) perform the central drama of the play, in which the lawyers try to persuade or force Gross to give up his invention, so they can either destroy it or profit from it.

The ensemble cast, including also Karen Gruber Ryan, Tallis Rose, Talia Pura, D. Davis and Suzanne Cross, is enormously skilled. Each actor performs multiple roles. Changes of coat, hat and accent are all that disclose that an actor has doffed one role and donned another. Yet this company makes it work, thanks significantly to the polished work of director and production designer Brenda Lynn Bynum and Cross doubling as stage manager.

This is the first play in the first Santa Fe season for the Oasis Theatre Company, a 30-year-old New York group. Oasis describes its mission as "shedding new light on old perceptions," an ambition amply fulfilled in this inaugural production.

The Water Engine continues through February 25, 2018, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information and tickets call 917-439-7708 or visit Performances are at Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie in Santa Fe NM.

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