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The Watering Hole

Theatre Review by James Wilson - July 1, 2021

"Ebb & Flow"
Photo by Lia Chang
In January 2012, as the Pershing Square Signature Center (home to Signature Theatre) prepared for its official launch, the public was invited to a series of open houses. I vividly recall the guided tour through the pristine auditoriums that had not yet accumulated the ghostly vestiges of stories and performances, and I remember the eager anticipation of great work to come. As New York City gradually returns to normalcy and is on the cusp of a new theatre season, Signature has once again opened its doors and is escorting people through its spaces. A combination art installation and interactive theatre experience, The Watering Hole, conceived and created by Lynn Nottage and Miranda Haymon, offers both a re-introduction to and sanctification of the arts complex.

Audience members in groups of four (each masked and socially distanced) are guided through ten separate installations. The prologue, created by Montana Levi Blanco and Rhiana Yazzie, takes place on the grand staircase and includes audio recordings of several of the artists involved with the project. The monologues revolve around the topic of ancestry and establish a key motivation for the production, which is to encourage individuals to focus inward while reconnecting with the larger community through theatre.

Upstairs, participants assemble at the sprawling watering hole—delineated by a striking azure floor covering—in the expansive lobby. The installations in the common area provide more opportunities for self-reflection and communion with others, and people are invited to write a postcard (featuring artwork by Naomi Chambers, JP Kim, and Jameelah P) to an incarcerated person.

Next, audience members are led along the various tributaries that take them to the building's various stages, auditoriums, backstage areas, and dressing rooms. Each location features a discrete work that emerges from the water motif, and they separately consider it in its myriad forms as rejuvenating, cleansing, or spiritually purifying. The most successful installations are not overly abstract but emanate from concrete personal experiences.

Chief among these is "Wings and Rings," created by Emmie Finckel, Ryan J. Haddad, and Riccardo Hernández. For this installation, the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre has been transformed into a giant swimming pool with a full-size video screen on the upstage wall and another suspended face-down above the stage. Spectators watch as Haddad descends into the pool, swims half laps, and climbs onto the concrete. Haddad's marvelous voiceover monologue describes his memories of being a self-described "sassy" disabled child who refused to be taught how to swim, and concludes with an adulthood memory of splashing around in his brother's pool with his nephews and nieces. Haddad, who uses a walker for mobility, movingly and half-sardonically recounts the "dark and twisted comedy horror" of trying to extricate himself from a pool in which his brother neglected to install a railing. As he pithily explains: "Oops."

"Spray Cap," created by Matt Barbot and Amith Chandrashaker with voiceover by Liza Colon-Zayas, includes a giant fire hydrant positioned like a totem in the middle of the stage of the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. Audience members sit on benches or crates surrounding the fixture, which assumes a mystical presence. The narrator describes the power of the hydrant to bring people out into urban streets on sweltering days, and she dexterously compares this to the potency of theatre to entice individuals out of self-quarantine as threats of the pandemic gradually abate.

There are also occasions for active participation, such as Campbell Silverstein and Charly Evon Simpson's "The Beach Explored," which invites individuals to dance, kick around a beach ball, and frolic in the sand. I was content, however, to read the beach and river-inspired poetry hanging on the wall. Musical and not-so-musical audience members are also given a chance to play along on a foot piano in Christina Anderson and Haymon's karaoke-infused "Ebb & Flow."

p>Not all of the installations are successful, and this Watering Hole has its fair share of dry spots. Some of the experiences, for instance, push the new-age philosophizing a bit too far, and the exhortation to concentrate on one's breathing, listen to one's heart, and imaginatively enter into safe spaces is particularly difficult while wearing a mask on a hot summer's day.

As the Signature prepares to resume its regular programming and once again realize its mission to celebrate playwrights and recognize their bodies of work, The Watering Hole offers a forceful reminder that the artistic, political, and social climate of 2021 is vastly different from 2012 when the company moved to its new home. In the wake of a pandemic that has made people wary of congregating and at a time when arts institutions are doubling down on their commitment to inclusiveness, this production demonstrates Signature's efforts to reboot and re-examine its responsibilities to theatre artists and the communities they represent.

The Watering Hole
Through August 8, 2021
The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues)
Tickets online and current performance schedule at