Let’s be honest: death is funny. Given the increased likelihood of erratic behavior, the possibility of massive social blunders, and the natural human need to laugh terrifying things into unreality, it’s clear that the recently bereaved offer solid gold material for comedy. This truth has certainly not been lost on East West Theatre, whose latest production, The Memory of Water
, makes the most of the humorous potential of grief.
Directed by Amy Brummit and based on Shelagh Stephenson’s award-winning script, the play finds three sisters staying in their mother’s home following her death from Alzheimer’s. The women mull over the past and bicker about their differences as they prepare for her funeral the next day, each meanwhile remaining preoccupied by her own relationship issues.
The leading trio is comprised of successful doctor Mary (Christy Shapiro); Teresa (Erika Mitschrich), who runs a health supplement and homeopathic medicine business; and histrionic youngest sister Catherine (Tamara O’Connell). The three occupy varying positions on a spectrum of narcissism, with Mary ostensibly the most grounded, Teresa a few degrees closer to dysfunctional, and both far surpassed by Catherine who -- unimpeded by even the smallest scrap of self-awareness – elicits the most laughs as she soars to ever-increasing levels of egotistical vapidity throughout the play. Their squabbles are punctuated by the arrival of Mary’s lover Mike (Rami Abuna’Meh), who is married (but not to her), followed by Teresa’s husband Frank -- played to sardonic perfection by Shanghai theatre circuit regular Mustaq Missouri.
While the play didn’t immediately find its pace, things began to flow along nicely once the cast settled into the comfortable rhythm of their pithy back-and-forths. O’Connell got the best jokes and got the best out of them, pulling off abominably self-obsessed shopping addict with almost worrying believability. It is Christy Shapiro, however, who deserves the credit of acting as the anchor of the piece, providing the substance needed to prevent it from floating off into pure frivolity. A familiar face in Shanghai theatre, her consistently outstanding performances in the most diverse roles make her association with any production enough to recommend it. This part is no exception, with her delivery packing an emotional punch when needed without ever crossing over into mawkishness or melodrama.
Most affecting are the scenes in which Mary is visited by the ghost of her mother, Vi (Virginia Withers). This is where most attention is directed to the intertwined themes of the play: the fallibility of memory, and the impact this has on our perception of ourselves and those close to us. These issues are represented throughout in different ways, most poignantly by Vi’s Alzheimer’s. Left with only fragments of her former self, she drifted, she says, between islands of identity.
This is one of many references to the water of the play’s title, which is given more explicit context by Mike’s explanation of a finding that supports homeopathy: that water has a “memory”, retaining the properties of active ingredients which have been removed. The sisters’ own heavily diluted memories, are, like water, continually in flux. Their conflicting views of their childhood denote the impossibility of shaping a definitive version of the past, movingly reinforced by Vi’s assertion that she sees nothing she recognizes in Mary’s remembered version of her.
Managing to pull off both silly and serious with equal proficiency, The Memory of Water
still leaves room for highly relatable moments of insight into the workings of a family. Whatever your own background, it’s likely you’ll find something that strikes a chord with you here -- as well as some truly fine performances you’ll be glad you didn’t miss.
'The Memory of Water' opened last Friday night, and performances at the rooftop events space are occurring on December 2 and 3. Tickets are priced at 150rmb (pre-sale), or 200rmb at the door. Call 13564102955 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.