Laura T. Fisher in Flood (Don Ipock)
Theater of the Absurd is probably not a subject most of us sit around regularly thinking about, but when we do, the figure who first springs to mind is very likely Samuel Beckett—or possibly Eugène Ionesco or one of their contemporaries, but for most of us, our idea of the genre is limited to mid-century writers. As a whole, the genre has fallen out of style in the last 60 or 70 years. But Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s new play Flood, which is currently having its world premiere at KC Rep, offers as good an argument as I can imagine in favor of a resurgence.
A common, even fundamental structural throughline in the Theater of the Absurd is characters who refuse to acknowledge the preposterous circumstances of their surroundings, focusing instead on the quotidian elements of their own lives. As Deen makes explicitly clear, those themes are as relevant as they’ve ever been.
Flood takes place on the 19th floor of a highrise apartment building. Much of the establishment of tone and visual themes, if not exact time and place (as those elements are deliberately obscured) is done through Paul Kim’s fantastic costume design. Edith (Laura T. Fisher), is doing spot-on 1950s housewife Donna Reed cosplay. Her adult children (Darrington Clark and Jamie Morrow), who live in the same building but some number of floors below, are explicitly contemporary, their clothes and styling modern, pseudo-punkish, and vaguely androgynous. The patriarch, Darren (Matt DeCaro), is dressed similarly to his wife in suspenders and an unassuming cardigan—oh, and a white, structured, commedia dell’arte-esque mask inexplicably covering the top half of his face.
Edith and Darren’s lives are comfortable, if not much else. Darren spends his days working diligently on his “masterpiece”—an undefinable structure made of thousands of matchstick-size pieces of wood. Edith longs for the day he decides he’s finished and the two of them can sit and have tea together, perhaps even hold hands if she can bring herself to hope for such a display of basic affection. The two have a “very pleasant view” of an ocean from their apartment windows—so pleasant that they’re able to ignore the fact that that ocean seems to be growing, rising, consuming them entirely.
The very obvious metaphor at play here is one of climate change, and that’s certainly part of what we’re seeing. But the issues Darren and Edith are ignoring are all-encompassing. In an interview with Hallie Gordon featured in the show’s program, Deen says his inspiration for the play came from questions that arose in the public consciousness after the 2016 presidential election—questions of why so many white women voted for Trump, putting their (generally unconscious) desire to uphold the patriarchy above what most would see as their most basic self-interests. Upholding these systems of power offers these women some comfort and a degree of protection—or at least the promise of those things (someday, with tea, maybe). For many, that’s enough to bury their head in the sand, to ignore everything that is swallowing up the world around them, themselves and those they love included. Deen’s inclination to depict these ideas via a 1950s sitcom housewife could be trite on its own, but the decision to cast that entire framework through the lens of the Theater of the Absurd puts it all so over the top as to come back around to being sharply incisive.
Every design element of Flood works to serve its larger themes and tone, but I would be extremely remiss not to specifically mention Edward T. Morris’s set, which strikes the perfect balance of whimsy and looming menace that drives Deen’s script. Director Kenneth Prestininzi commands a stellar cast, navigating Deen’s complex, lofty metaphors with equal measures of absurd levity and gravitas.
“Flood” runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way) through February 19. For more information, visit kcrep.org.