The term “physical theater” tends to conjure up the worst of the genre, movement-based expressionism attempting to fuse dance and theater but failing at both. Mercifully, that’s not the case with Frantic Assembly. What has long marked out this intriguing company has been its interest in and reliance upon text, in this instance created by playwright Mark Ravenhill. The result may be unclassifiable — it’s a cross between a spoken dance piece and an installation with actors — but it’s certainly arresting.
That “pool (no water)” — complete with chic lowercase title — might really be a kind of installation is particularly apposite given that the piece itself is about the creation and destruction of what its four twentysomething protagonists believe is a work of art.
The four performers play unnamed friends who met at art college and have since worked together as “the Group.” They are hugely jealous of a fifth member who split from them to work alone, creating conceptual work around death and AIDS, using real bandages and beyond, which has made her highly successful and rich.
The title derives from the moment when, during a weekend when they are reunited at her extravagant new home, she dives into her pool at night, only to discover to everyone’s horror there is no water in it.
Ravenhill’s text examines the responses of her friends, whose reactions to this near-fatal accident are as outwardly extreme as they are inwardly callow. Like all smart artists, they go nowhere without recording equipment, so it’s inevitable that before long they are sneaking a camcorder into the hospital to chart her death. Equally unsurprisingly, nothing goes the way the quartet has planned, particularly when, to their horror, the patient starts making an unexpected recovery and then wants to see their exploitative work.
As ever with this company, although naturalism is way off the menu, the storytelling is unusually legible in terms of character, situation and development. Designer Miriam Buether’s surreal set grounds the action in a white space that is simultaneously the bottom of a swimming pool, complete with ladders to the top for the performers to climb and leap from, and a suitably antiseptic hospital room with swinging doors and a bed.
The script is similarly fluid, written out as a short story in direct address rather than split up into separate characters as in a conventional play. The four actors take turns telling the story, fleshing out the action with highly stylized, repeated movement patterns to an evocative soundtrack by culty composer-songwriter Imogen Heap, whose music runs from ambient sound to vocoder vocals.
The show’s strength is evident in the discomforting central section in which the group abusively takes out their confusion, resentment and rage upon their friend’s comatose body. However, it is a testament to the success of Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s production that although none of the increasingly intimate and upsetting violations of her body are expressly shown, everything is powerfully suggested in a disturbing manner.
Far from being tasteless and irresponsible as certain U.K. critics have loudly argued, this bold examination of (mis)behavior in the name of art is what the piece is all about.
Even at 75 minutes, the show is overstretched and it hits the law of diminishing returns. It’s at its weakest in the party sequence that, although necessary for the plot, is over-extended. All four fling themselves around with physical bravura in supposedly drugged-up exuberance but after less than a minute all tension has vanished.
The same is true of the climactic destruction of their work of art. The scenario puts the “artists” in a panic, forcing them to examine their motives. And although these characters refuse to recognize it, the conclusion the play draws from their actions is that the making of art comes with moral responsibility. It’s a welcome, surprisingly compassionate conclusion for a theater piece that consciously spends its time looking modish.