Underland, director Mia Rovegno and playwright Alexandra Collier's new play on stage now at 59E59 Theaters, starts as any coming-of-age teen story might. Two girls, Violet and Ruth, clad in school uniforms, light up a joint behind their school, share gossip and insults and curse words, brag about how little they care, and plot their escape from the humdrum, backwater Australian town in which they live. The rest of the play’s backbone is similarly recognizable: a beautiful young art teacher, Miss Harmony, comes into town and wants to inspire the students, catching the eye of the world-weary, cynical gym teacher Mr. B. But then the familiar façade begins to slip, and the crass but endearing normalcy of the high school scene quickly gives way into something far more sinister and dark, as this coming-of-age tale in the outback spirals into a backwoods nightmare. A Japanese businessman crawls out of a hole that Violet and Ruth had been digging out behind the school, and people start turning up dead in the gaping quarry.
Georgia Cohen is naively sweet as the fresh-faced, hopeful Miss Harmony; it’s understandable why both the younger and older generations are drawn to her. Violet, played with convincing teenage angst by Angeliea Stark, falls for her in a big way, in part because Miss H encourages her artistic ability and gives her a camera, suggesting that her art could be her escape to somewhere new. Mrs. Butterfat also falls for her, recognizing her younger self in the woman. Annie Golden's portrayal of this unapologetically eccentric religion teacher -- who doesn’t seem particularly religious at all -- may be the highlight of the play, in part because she’s laughable in her oddball ways, from carrying on conversations with her long dead husband to zipping up her bright yellow windbreaker and heading out on long bike-rides in the dark of the night. She does her best to help Daniel Isaac’s very lost businessman Taka, and console Kiley Lotz’s confused and fearful Ruth, but they may be beyond saving. Her vigilance and endless quirks might be what it takes to survive in a desert town of extremes, from the scorching heat to the frigid cold of night, where crocodiles roam the streets and from which it seems there may be no escape.
In true horror story tradition, supernatural forces jar loose to wreak havoc and seem poised to drag us all down to hell, or at least to far, far away places. Yet it isn’t all impossible, and part of Underland’s depth is its ambitious commitment to remaining a vague, unsettling allegory about the things that are out to get girls alone at night and the terrifying allure of monsters. As Mr. B, Jens Rassmussen plays this ambiguous role well, and with surreal choreography that adds elegance and seduction to the play’s threats, he is as ruggedly, athletically entrancing as he is dangerous.
The intimate scale of the space makes way for Elisheba Ittoop's sound design, which pairs the natural, sans-microphone vocal performances with eerie a capella lullabies, the insidiously maddening drone from the quarry creeping throughout, from a subtle background hum to a piercing shriek. Burke Brown’s lighting and Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s set design create a space that transforms through subtle, powerful shifts, from the metallic, prison-like confines of the schoolyard to a suggestion of the incongruously vast, beautiful expanse of the outback's open sky.
These elements weave together into an impressively immersive environment that is, in a word, scary. But Underland is the best kind of scary. It's the kind of scary that's so hard to describe but so easy to recognize. It's the kind of scary that you don't notice at first, that creeps in around the edges, capable of capturing the audience in its jaws and swallowing them whole.