H2O — Image courtesy Gremlin Theatre

H2O

Gremlin Theatre
Directed by Ellen Fenster

The Gremlin Theatre’s current production of H2O, a play written by Jane Martin and directed by Ellen Fenster, explores connections between faith, fame, and creativity, and ponders whether art, and theater in particular, can adequately provide a semblance of order in a chaotic and indifferent universe.

The small cast features Deborah (Ashley Rose Montondo), a struggling but talented actor who is building a career in New York based on what she feels is a call from God, and Jake (Peter Christian Hansen), a severely disillusioned veteran and overnight Hollywood success story. The two characters exquisitely balance each other out, largely because they come from vastly different worlds.

As an Evangelical Christian with a close relationship to her minister father, Deborah is confident that she is serving a higher power by bringing beauty and poignancy to the world through acting. She is particularly drawn to Shakespeare because she feels that he, more than any other playwright, illustrates the presence of the divine in mankind. Although Deborah is a little self-righteous at times, both Martin and Montondo have crafted an endearingly conflicted character who avoids easy stereotyping as a blind and sanctimonious Christian. Montondo does a masterful job of subtly illustrating Deborah’s doubts and vulnerabilities, as well as her unshakable religious principles.

H2O — Image courtesy Gremlin TheatreA few moments after meeting Jake, we learn that he is an emotional wreck, a ticking time bomb of self-destruction. Perhaps even more damaging to Jake than his time overseas was his sudden rise to fame. In what sounds like a fairly standard Hollywood rags-to-riches story, Jake, who fled to Los Angeles after his military service, was discovered and cast fairly quickly in Dawn Walker 1, 2, and 3, a series of formulaic films about a silent superhero. Thirty million dollars richer, but no more whole than he was before his fame, Jake takes on the role of Hamlet to prove to the public and to himself that he is talented and worthy of the success that he has been granted.

Deborah, whose initial meeting with Jake coincides with his attempted suicide, is unceremoniously sucked into the movie star’s world and indirectly implored to help him recover. “I’m drained of meaning,” Jake tells Deborah from his hospital bed, eliciting her to help him figure out what, if anything, he should be living for. It is this same purposelessness that draws Jake to Hamlet, and it quickly becomes clear that what he is looking for in the play is essentially the same thing that Deborah finds in God: reassurance that life is valuable, proof that there are deep-seeded truths that all people share, and belief that the world is, at its core, good.

H2O — Image courtesy Gremlin TheatreWhile Jake and Deborah, who is cast as Ophelia opposite Jake’s Hamlet, grow closer, they are both forced to interrogate their belief systems, something they find challenging at the best of times and catastrophic at the worst. Deborah, when needled by Jake about the improbability of a benevolent and all-knowing creator, concedes that even if God is fictional, the strength, peace, and assurance that her belief affords her are reward enough. Her faith allows her to live happily, something that Jake’s nihilism isn’t able to do.

What is most impressive about the Gremlin’s production is the depth and complexity that Montondo and Hansen bring to their characters. We have a fundamentalist Christian and a tortured and insecure Hollywood leading man; it would be pretty easy to oversimplify, and this doesn’t happen. Sure, Deborah spews a few truisms and Jake sometimes overdoes the indulgent self-pity, but even when the characters veer toward cliché, there is enough other frustrating and messy humanity present to rescue them from being boring or trite. One gets the sense that while both Deborah and Jake would often like to deny the intricacies of their own minds as well their feelings for each other since doing so would make their lives easier and safer, the playwright, director, and actors never allow this as an option.

H2O — Image courtesy Gremlin TheatreUltimately, H2O doesn’t offer a clear opinion on whether Deborah’s passionate but ultimately narrow faith or Jake’s detached cynicism is a “better” ideology to carry through life. If the play does have a moral inkling, it’s that all people formulate coping mechanisms in order to deal with realities that would be too harsh to bear otherwise, and while this may be necessary, it does not come without ramifications. The fact that it is impossible to live within one’s chosen ideological framework without impacting others, sometimes violently so, is where the play draws its tension, as we see in a scene where Deborah attempts to force an emotional response in Jake with disastrous results.

H20 continues Gremlin Theatre’s successful streak of staging (mostly) modern and contemporary plays of artistic, emotional, and intellectual intensity, plays that don’t avoid posing challenging questions or depicting a wide, and therefore sometimes ugly, array of human experiences. While the subject matter of H2O is difficult, there is joy in the exuberance with which the production is undertaken. Hansen and Montondo embody their characters fully and display a tremendous onstage connectedness despite the fact that they are at odds with each other more often than not. H2O is a tremendously worthwhile production and plays at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage until June 27.

Photos by Aaron Fenster

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.