Stephen Underwood as Underwaterguy. Photo by Heather Perry.
“I love water,” Stephen Underwood happily confides near the top of Underwaterguy, and he certainly does. He lauds it with uncommon intimacy and depth (sometimes literally) in his original, autobiographical one-man show, a multi-media memoir of how he became ever more at home in the realm of water and in his own water-filled self. The very winning world premiere of Underwaterguy, which Underwood both wrote and performs, runs now at Good Theater, under the direction of Cheryl King.
On a stage that practically undulates with tall, white modular waves near the wings and sapphire ripples painted on the floor (Cheryl Dolan’s striking set), and with the help of myriad images projected onto a large screen, Underwood talks us through the origins and development of his water-love. He’s interested in both the personal, such as a childhood naked snorkeling trip, and some human fundamentals. “Aren’t we all free divers?” he asks, as we watch pastel motes frolic on the dark screen, and he means in the womb. In his wide, curious investigation into water, Underwood he touches upon syntax (he prefers to say he’s “in” rather than “under” the water); physiology (the Mammalian Dive Reflex); diving techniques (which he learns from the Czech diver Martin Stepanek); and biology (water is the only substance that’s in every living thing). He also details a slew of personal “watermark moments” — all water-related, but increasingly concerning coming to terms with his sexuality — that helped form his identity. Woven as skillfully as they are, these elements add up to an unexpectedly whole narrative, and a meditative portrait.
The multimedia images of the show also range widely. Underwood projects old photographs of himself at various ages (the images of him with his band, circa the 1970s, are worth the price of admission), abstract digital animations (for the more philosophical bits), and — most compellingly — underwater video footage. The footage is Underwood’s own (he shows us a series of cameras he uses, from a little GoPro to an expensive-looking, wide-lensed device) and it is transporting. Underwood steps away from the screen and treats us to clarion Caribbean waters, pilot whales, and shipwrecks. He shows us schooling blue tang and light piercing through the slats from docks above. And — in a more avant-garde moment — he screens from a remarkable underwater film he made in a pool with gymnastic swimmers and furls of brightly colored fabrics, a project which he quite accurately describes as “Busby Berkeley meets Esther Williams meets Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
He also manages a quiet transition from the aesthetic to a conservation angle toward our local water. I never thought of Maine as offering much for snorkelers, but Underwood’s underwater footage in the state’s lakes and rivers is surprisingly clear, beautiful, and all the more fascinating for being our own landscape. Underwood shows us railroad tracks in Sebago Lake, the mesmerizingly long, red stems of lily pads, and the underwater dive of a loon, then video-profiles a long-time volunteer monitor of water clarity in Lake Megunticook, gently connecting our pleasure in the images to a sense of responsibility to preserve it.