Political theater for the lving room – a review of the play Take This House

Compared with most other places in the world, a likely majority of us inhabiting the United States live with plenty and abundance, so much so that we take it for granted. We eat food but know not where it was harvested, or how many pairs of hands touched those tomatoes before they came to crown our organic arugula and endive salad. We watch television, live through the internet, read by lamplight, yet remain unaware of where and how the necessary electricity was generated. And we flush our toilets, water our lawns, and wash our sore bodies in steaming showers, ever ignorant of the intricate system of pipes and dams that pump this most precious of liquid, fundamental to life itself, from distant sources to our lips and drains.

“Take This House (and Float it Away)”, a new work of theater by K. Qilo Matzen and Andrea del Moral (Change of State Performance Project), aims to provoke its audience into reconsidering our uses of and attitudes toward water. While water is ubiquitous, found in oceans and in our cells, the play focuses on a presumably affluent white couple living in the Sacramento River Delta. Stu and Marlene immerse themselves in the mundane: Stu obsessively watches birds through a living room window, and Marlene keeps herself ever active in the local Kiwanis club and playground construction projects at local schools. Over the course of several days, Sacramento becomes increasingly inundated with relentless storms. The region’s levees, second only to those of New Orleans in terms of disrepair, breach, and soon the streets of Stu and Marlene’s tranquil neighborhood are raging with the relentless flow of long-obstructed water.

The play is the result of del Moral and Matzen’s long-time artistic collaboration. While both artists have their primary foundations in dance and movement-based theater, this piece appears to be much more a “straight” play, where a great deal of the action occurs through the dialogue. The script emerged from improvisations, and from these two actors’ desires to address our use and misuse of water in a direct and relevant way. While the play seems like it could be the product of a playwright, the performance of the text is enriched by moments of sudden speed and exaggerated slowness, as well as sequences dreamlike and otherworldly, which augment with the otherwise naturalistic and comedic tone. It is in these places, the decelerated card game or the floating newspapers, when Matzen and del Moral let their physical training and aesthetic infuse the piece.

In the program for the play, Matzen and del Moral propose this question: “Would the Gulf Coast response look different if the capital of a wealthy state, and all its white, affluent residents, stood in disaster’s path?” The creators provide no answers. The audience leaves deprived of a conveniently profound revelation that explains everything neatly. Instead, in a post-show discussion, the actors ask the audience to respond to their experience, to voice their own perspectives, concerns, and ideas. Change of State rejects the notion of an external savior and calls upon its spectators to look within ourselves for our own methods and actions with which to engage the enormous dilemma of modern industrial water use and management. According to del Moral, the long-term vision places the play first in a three-part series. The second will be a slide presentation of the current water system and the benefits and limitations of alternative water technologies, followed by a final workshop with hands on community-level visioning and design.

del Moral told me of a Yurok/Wintu community whose sacred burial grounds are partially drowned by the Shasta Dam, located on the McCloud River in northern California. There is a proposal to raise this dam between 6 and 200 feet, in an effort to postpone its inevitable and growing obsolescence. If raised, the Yurok/Wintu’s remaining burial grounds will be totally submerged. These people feel that without this place, without their connection to ancestors and the land, their culture will cease to function or have meaning, and they will commit mass suicide. This threat recalls the U’Wa of Colombia, who vowed to do exactly the same if their land was opened to petroleum extraction. What is particularly shocking and illuminating of our own interconnectedness through water, del Moral informed me that if every home and business in San Francisco switched from incandescent to flourescent light bulbs, the need for the extra energy to be produced by the raising of this dam would be eliminated.

Change of State’s ultimate goal for this project, explicitly stated by the performers, is to support the creation of a new culture around water, one that recognizes it as sacred and precious, that reflects gratitude and humility toward this ultimate force of life.