Not everyone who attends Jane Martin’s H20 at Rep Stage will necessarily agree, but the case could be made for its taking place in one of Dante’s outer circles of Hell. As the play opens, a cynical male actor slashes his wrists and spends the rest of the play in a sort of spiritual limbo as his tormented soul plays tug-of-war with a guardian angel.
Granted, that’s not precisely what you will see on stage at Howard Community College. Martin’s two-person 2013 drama, which made its debut at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, is very much set in today’s polarized world of the faithful and the faithless.
Oscar Wilde once famously described a cynic as someone who knew “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Jane Martin goes all out in making her cynic a man who no longer even knows the prices of things. That’s because he belongs to the planet’s most pampered class — bankable, world-acclaimed movie stars. With three blockbuster action hits to his credit, everything comes to Jake free of charge, though with a hidden cost to his self-esteem.
Yes, Jake has become a platinum, card-carrying culture whore. And that stroke of good fortune has pitched him headlong into a major existential crisis without a stunt double.
Now this handsome action star, whose most famous screen character never utters a word of dialogue, is gearing up to make his Broadway bow in a revival of Hamlet, one of the most demanding roles of the English stage.
Pure runaway ego, you say? Not entirely. Didn’t Shakespeare’s melancholy prince also have his own big “to be or not to be” issues to work through? Jane Martin is a proven playwright with a valid artistic license, so just sit back and let her do the driving.
That is not difficult at all thanks to the natural charisma and appeal of the actor playing Jake. Robbie Gay projects the character’s angst and dark inner doubts as well as the wry, boyish charm that got him where he is and the glib, aloof manner that has been his undoing.
Naturally, every Hamlet needs an Ophelia, someone pure and saintly to mourn him when he’s gone. So Jake has been auditioning every actress in New York City but without any luck. He isn’t really searching for competence, you understand. He’s seeking a savior. And at what is almost literally the last moment, he is given Deborah.
Deborah is upbeat, hopeful, anchored in her Christian belief, and ramrod firm in her commitment to chastity. In short, Deborah is just about nothing like Ophelia. But she finds him with his veins freshly opened and, like it or not, destiny has suddenly cast them to star opposite one another.
Newcomer Krenee A. Tolson plays Deborah with obvious heart and sympathy. She represents the discipline and purpose that Jake is missing, and in the play’s final scenes she makes us believe she could even be a dynamite Ophelia. She is a beautiful young actress whose sense of humor shines through at the most unexpected times.
Still, it’s Robbie Gay who has the showier role and must manipulate the central ambivalence here: Is he using his charms to win Deborah over romantically, or is he maliciously tempting her to see if she will abandon her faith? Is he truly a soul in need or an ominous force out to cause a fissure in Deborah’s Christian beliefs?
In short, where is this romance heading? Can she give him some new faith or will he bring her fresh doubt? Whose will is stronger, and whose view of the universe should prevail?
That’s H2O in a nutshell. It’s an ambitious drama that also manages a few satirical jabs at modern egoism and our rancid celebrity culture. Best guess on the title’s meaning? Hamlet 2 Ophelia is mine, though admittedly there is significant water imagery here and there.
Director Kasi Campbell has staged the action quite cleverly, using stagehand sprites to whisk props and costumes on and off. At one point she has her two actors speaking to one another through closed doors on opposite sides of the center stage — a telling reminder of the gulf between them.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger provides a handsome central platform that allows viewer imagination to play its part. I especially loved his hanging outline of a ceiling above the stage, a sort of celestial echo of the theological shadowboxing going on below.
All this season Rep Stage has been working its way up through Dante’s various outer rings of Hell. Following a quick dip in memory loss (The Other Place) and a night shift at a godforsaken mall sandwich franchise (American Hero), we continue our ascent smartly with Jane Martin’s H20. It’s the very definition of committed and uncompromising professional theater. All Howard County should rush out to support it.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
H20 at Rep Stage plays through March 5, 2017, in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.