The region has a new theater company, a transplant from New York, and early signs are that it will be a major addition to our already complex stage scene. Although there are 40 or 50 companies in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the East Mountains, only a half dozen have the experience and skill of this new company.
It is called Oasis, and its current offering is the first play in its first full Santa Fe season. The company was founded in New York City’s East Village in 1988 and produced more than 100 plays over 10 years. In 1999 it moved to Claryville, N.Y., where it performed plays, conducted workshops and made short films.
Last year Oasis moved to Santa Fe along with six truckloads of costumes, props and equipment. In 2017 it tried out its Santa Fe wings with “Marriage by the Masters” at the Adobe Rose and, as part of the Santa Fe Theater Walk, David Mamet’s “Dark Pony.” This, its first full season, includes Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor” in March as well as the current production, “The Water Engine.”
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“America is a great dream of greed,” intones one of the innumerable characters in “The Water Engine,” the odd David Mamet tragicomedy that opened last week in Santa Fe.
It is a thought-provoking 90 minutes of theater by one of the great masters of the medium. The play 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, Gross insists to skeptics, could drive a car or fly an airplane.
The stage is long and narrow and has no set but 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 (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 that 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.
“The Water Engine” continues through Feb. 25, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information and tickets call 917-439-7708. Performances are at Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie in Santa Fe.
Oasis describes its mission as “shedding new light on old perceptions,” an ambition amply fulfilled in its inaugural production.