Source Festival: ‘Lake Untersee’ by Nicole Cusick

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What’s a better setting for a tense family drama than a frozen lake in Antarctica? Lake Untersee takes advantage of this unique setting to tell the story of Rocky and his divorced parents Phyllis and Jason, who seem to be literally and metaphorically tiptoeing around on ice to make it through their strained relationships. The Source Festival may have begun last Friday, but Lake Untersee is the first full-length play to go up in the Festival.

Mark Ludwick and Adrienne Armstrong. Photo by C. Stanley Photography..
Mark Ludwick and Adrienne Armstrong. Photo by C. Stanley Photography..

Rocky, played by Noah Chiet, is a teen that is greatly affected by the divorce of his parents and goes to a dark place emotionally to feel loved. Chiet is challenged to play a mentally unstable young man, constantly on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Simple events like a meal or a shopping trip can send him over the edge. The only thing that seems to keep him holding on is the idea the he can hear his lover who is trapped under the ice of Lake Untersee in Antarctica.

Chiet’s performance is extremely convincing and carries the emotional tension of the show. There are a few lighter moments when Chiet surfaces from his brooding ways to open up to his elders, but the weight of the secret he carries and the fear of disappointing his parents – who are already on edge – is felt in Chiet’s powerful performance.The dedication Chiet displays in reaching the sadness and pressure Rocky feels in this family is truly heart-breaking.

Some of Rocky’s pressure comes from his father Jason (Mark Ludwick), whose world is very black and white. His plan for dealing with his son is very calculated and matter-of-fact, until he sees that is simply not enough. Ludwick plays a tightly-wound man who is trying to hold onto his son, yet still honor his pride as a doctor and his  faith in the power of medicating the mentally unstable. One of the unforgettable moments in the show is Ludwick’s monologue where Jason discusses how he understands a person through the rhythm of their heartbeat, as he can hear their passion and sadness all through his carefully applied stethoscope.

Jason hears a marching band in the heart of Gale (Liz Osborn). Gale is Jason’s girlfriend and is a forever optimist, as well as a painter. She is the first one to not judge Rocky and assume he is crazy, as she listens to him in a way his parents aren’t able to. Osborn’s performance is very grounded and is the most level-headed character in the show. Gale is committed to supporting Rocky, and Osborn too is very supportive and generous as an actor.

If Gale is moonlighting the path to emotional freedom for Rocky in the evening, then his mother Phyllis, played by Adrienne Armstrong, is the sun burning his eyes during the day –  steering him off course.  Armstrong’s character is very intense and harps on her son as only a mother could. She is enraged by how difficult her son seems to be and by the situation she has been put in with the divorce, and that passion and anger is displayed in Armstrong’s fine performance.

Although the cast is small, the writing is big. Playwright Joe Waechter’s script is very well-developed and at times very beautiful – as when Gale describes how painting the eyes in all of her painting is the hardest part because that is where you can tell exactly what  a person or fish is feeling. Also, the concept of creating a parallel between the tension in the family and the setting of his frozen lake is so original and meaningful.

Lake Untersee was born from this idea, that perhaps in the absence of these distractions and in the spirit of adventure, we can become a more perfect version of ourselves.”

This family is just in search of understanding each other and it takes a trip to Antarctica for that understanding to be reached.

The design team was clearly given a unique challenge in recreating Antarctica within a black box theatre, and what Lighting Designer Joey Walls and Set Designer Deb Sivigny created with some florescent light bulbs and a white scrim was simply breathtaking.

Noah Chiet. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Noah Chiet. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

This new work brings a fresh look to the typical family drama. Families have similar problems, but Waechter demonstrates that families do not always overcome these problems in the same way. Director Rick Hammerly does a wonderful job guiding his talented cast, and has set the bar very high for any productions in the Source Festival that will follow.

Lake Utersee is not to be missed.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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Late Untersee plays on June 15th, 23rd, and 29th at 8 PM, and on June 21st at 9 PM at Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.