When the lights rise on Underneath, currently in its west coast premiere at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, you meet a dead woman who is crawling her way out of her tomb. Dressed in rags to signify a partially decomposed state, she then takes the audience on a riveting, personal, emotional, and at times darkly funny journey through her life.
Olivier Award Winners Pat Kinevane, writer and performer of this piece, and Fishamble: The New Play Company present this unique Irish play in partnership with Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Directed by Jim Culleton, the opening moments of Underneath are jarring at best, frightening at worst. It’s a bit creepy, and as Kinevane contorts around the stage, you briefly wonder exactly what on earth this show is, but once the narrative gets going, you can’t look away. The audience is thrown headfirst into a 90 minute tour de force that is part monologue, part performance art, part interactive theater, and part tragedy.
Kinevane plays a woman who became disfigured and disabled after a freak accident in her childhood. Over the course of the play, we learn about her life, from the early years of avoiding mirrors and surviving school bullies to struggling to find a place in the world as an adult. As is probably obvious by the grim setting, her life was also tragically cut short, although you do not learn when or how until the play’s final minutes. The story is heartbreaking, but Kinevane smartly adds moments of humor and levity—there are jokes about the character’s obsession with television as a form of escapism (a rant about how overrated Downton Abbey is was particularly amusing), and there was even a little singalong with the audience.
On that note, if you are seated in the front row, be prepared to become a part of the narrative. Kinevane asked several audience members for their names, conversed with them within the context of the play, and continued to address them throughout. While I was not personally singled out, I marveled at how unique and personal this made the experience. The very thing I most love about theater is that each performance is a special moment in time that will never be exactly replicated and, as a result, requires you to be fully present. No other audience will have exactly the same experience my fellow patrons and I did, and I found myself absolutely riveted throughout. The narrative jumps around in time, switching back and forth between childhood and adulthood experiences, occasionally with random anecdotes in between, but it is never confusing because the emotional thread is so clear.
“You never know what’s around the corner,” Kinevane often muses when reflecting on the unexpected twists and turns in the character’s life. While much of her story is sadly shaped by the way she is perceived and treated by society and those around her, she is just as hard on herself, often contemplating how much easier life must be for those who are beautiful. Your heart will soar in the rare moments when she finds some sense of belonging or happiness, and you will feel unspeakable dread as the story races towards its inevitable conclusion.
There is simply not enough praise for Kinevane, who creates such a deep, affecting character and uses impressive physicality and raw, open emotion to truly connect with the audience, whose energy feels crucial to the performance’s success. I feel I must be clear—many aspects of this play are a bit abstract. If you do not allow yourself to buy into the premise and truly step into this tomb with the main character and go along on her journey, it may come across as simply strange. But, personally, I was quite moved. Towards the end, Kinevane poses a question—when was the last time you judged someone based on appearance alone? We all do this. Judgment is so ingrained in human nature that I find it hard to believe anyone can turn it off. But this question is one I carried with me out of the theater, and I expect it will remain on my mind for days and weeks to come. You never truly know someone else’s story, and there is so much more to people than meets the eye—just as there is much more to this show than its minimalist set and abstract setting may lead you to believe.
Underneath runs at the Odyssey Theatre through October 30th. Performances are Thursdays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, and tickets cost $25. On two select Fridays, October 21st and October 28th, Kinevane will perform his play Silent, which won a 2016 Olivier Award. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.OdysseyTheatre.com.