by Martin Denton · December 9, 2014
J. Stephen Brantley, Alan Barnes Netherton, and Matt Hurley in If Colorado Had an Ocean... | Ken Arcara
Mike Gorman's new play at La MaMa, If Colorado Had an Ocean..., takes place, mostly, on a construction site. Here, a young man named Jim, on summer break from college, takes a job working with his older brother Steven on a ritzy penthouse apartment owned by a wealthy druglord named Tashtego. Steven's an experienced builder but his heart is in the sea: he yearns to be a commercial fisherman, something that is very difficult to do in the uncertain economy of mid-1980s New England. And Jim is really a writer--a standin for playwright Gorman, in fact, whose memories of his early adult life and his own fisherman brother infuse this gorgeous, poetic, energetic work.
Also working on the site are Steven's old pal Big John, who relocated to Colorado to drive a truck some time ago, but finds himself called back to the Atlantic; and Jidge, a Vietnam vet who served time in prison alongside Steven (we're never told what these men did) and is now working hard to rebuild himself with respect and dignity. At the helm is Jason, a heroin addict who met Jidge's daughter Nancy in rehab; he wants to marry her, and in a way this whole job is providing Jason a way to prove his worth to Jidge.
And also working on the site, but on a different project, is Michelle, Steven's longtime girlfriend. She's an artist and she has decided to create an installation on and about the worksite--a mixed-media piece constructed from found objects and crafted as shadow puppetry whose progress we sometimes see on the side wall of the theater.
So everybody's trying to make something here, or more than one thing: this is a play about construction--the artistic kind and the possibly more prosaic but just as essential, tangible kind; it's a play about possibilities, even those--like the supposition posed in the play's title--that are not so attainable. It's also a play about DEstruction, particularly as wrought by drug addiction. The well-heeled owner of the house being built here is, we are told, a descendant of Tashtego, the harpooner of the Pequod in Moby Dick: like his legendary ancestor, this Tashtego is a cannibal, but it's the heroin he sells that devours his victims.
Gorman's writing is lyrical and bold, a sort of magic realism that basks in the sheer energy and joy of the creative impulse, and the explosions that are possible when that impulse bashes against compulsion, or obsession. If Colorado Had an Ocean... is actually part of a trilogy--chronologically it's the first, though it was written last, the other plays being Ultralight and The Honor and Glory of Whaling. The pieces each stand on their own, but now that the trilogy is finished I can't wait to see them played together and in sequence.
This production is directed with rigor and care by Mike's frequent collaborator David Bennett, who mines the script for its innate theatricality and creates an epic, ever-moving tapestry in the relatively small confines of the First Floor Theater at La MaMa. The actors are terrific: Matt Hurley and Melody Bates anchor the piece as Steven and Michelle, J.Stephen Brantley is brilliantly commanding and oddly vulnerable as Jidge, a complicated man I want to know much more about, Nick Lawson brings a combination of innocence and brio to the younger brother Jim, Alan Barnes Netherton embodies the force of nature that Big John is, and Jeff Pagliano and Caitlin Johnson mine darker territory as Jason and Nancy.
Live music performed by Sammo and Chriz Zaborowski adds enormous and invaluable texture to the event. The composer is Rebecca Hart. Spare production design (Donald Eastman's sets, Angela Wendt's costumes, John Eckert's lighting, and Tim Schellenbaum's sound) complete the creation of the unique world of this play.
It's a world that's at once tantalizing and a little bit forbidding; a journey into Mike Gorman's memory and heart that reminds us of a time of hope and (im)possibility. If Colorado Had an Ocean... is my favorite kind of theater, not just inviting us to spend time in a different time and place, but really immersing us in it, engaging all of our senses and leaving us with much to ponder and savor long after the show is over.
[In the photo above right are Melody Bates and Matt Hurley; photo by Ken Arcara (www.kenarcara.com).]