Thicket & Thistle is the kind of company that anybody serious about theater in America would want to encourage. This is what drew me to “Waterman,” which turns out to be a Fringe-style sci-fi, folk-rock musical comedy, aswirl with plot points and pointed commentary (via satire and parody) on such issues as climate change and fruitless war.
I first saw Thicket & Thistle at 6 & B – a community garden on Sixth Street and Avenue B on the Lower East Side that the neighborhood had created years earlier by clearing a vacant lot of rubble and trash, and turning it into a beautiful green spot – needed by its neighbors and nurtured by them. This was in the summer of 2015, a year after the members of Thicket & Thistle had moved to New York after graduation, and were performing an original musical that they collectively assembled entitled “What’s Your Wish,” for free as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Six years later, the company still exists. I’d like to think they have cleared the way for their own green spot, one that is needed and in need of nurturing by those New Yorkers who cannot get our entire theatrical sustenance from Broadway blockbusters.
“Waterman,” which is playing Thursdays to Sundays until September 26th at the Players Theater, is set in a future when Water People, normally peace loving (and formerly known as fish) are on the brink of war with Land People (human beings.) Their anger is understandable: Exhibit A is the blind sea Captain (Sam De Roest) who has been catching Water people and turning them into burgers at his Times Square fast food franchise, Wet Burger. When he’s at sea to take more Water People hostage, he recklessly throws his beer cans into the ocean, joining the mountain of garbage already choking underwater life. To prevent this mutually destructive war, a scientist named Doctor Sciensfish (Juliana Wheeler) activates a secret agent she developed Frankenstein-like years ago, who’s half-fish, half-man. He is the title character, Waterman (Kyle Acheson) and goes undercover as a human to save the world.
There’s more, much more. There are some 16 original songs, from comic ditties to romantic ballads to down-and-dirty blues. They are performed by a game cast, many of whom wear silly headgear that I took too long to realize were meant to be fins. The performers seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, and passed it along to the audience.
So I felt both surprise and guilt that I reacted with a slight but noticeable twinge of disappointment after 90 minutes, when I realized the show was not ending, but just pausing for intermission.
“Waterman” debuted at Portland’s 2012 Fertile Ground Festival, the brainchild of De Roest and Acheson, and they have been working on it ever since. I’m going to make two guesses: 1. The show was shorter in 2012. 2. It’s grown and grown, as they’ve composed more songs, and thought up more funny scenes.
The songs are tuneful, and the scenes are funny. But “Waterman” would work better for me at 90 minutes, no intermission, at most. Or as a serial. Perhaps I’ve just been conditioned from many years of attending zany Fringe festival shows. The best of them seem to have held fast to a nearly religious belief: You maximize the laughs by minimizing the length.
The dilemma in “Waterman” — and again, I’m guessing — is that the creative team is torn between three impulses:
*To drive home a cautionary tale and make serious points about our destructive stewardship of the planet (hence monologues that aren’t really necessary);
*To respect the traditions of the Broadway musical (so there’s a lot of plot and a Broadway-sized score, which features such obligatory Broadway-type songs as the love duets Waterman sings with the woman with whom he falls in love, Ursula (Lindsay Zaroogian) the Captain’s adopted daughter, who works at Wet Burger but wants to be a marine biologist);
*To remain true to their theater festival, community garden origins.
I trust Thicket & Twistle will continue to work through these conflicts — certainly to a better end than the doomed Water People and Land People.
through September 26
Running time: about two hours, plus intermission
Music director and lead composer: Kyle Acheson
Head book writer: Sam De Roest
Script and song collective: Kyle Acheson, Sam De Roest, Lindsay Zaroogian, Juliana Wheeler, Josh Stenseth, and Jonathan Eric Foster
Kyle Acheson- Waterman
Lindsay Zaroogian- Ursula
Sam De Roest- Captain
Rachel Rosenthal- James
Juliana Wheeler- Doctor Sciensfish
Jonathan Foster- Director, General B Warren, Ensemble
Sarah Yeakel- Gil Dossa, Water Person Diva, Ensemble
Will Watt- Mark, Keith, Ensemble