Review: ‘Pool of Unknown Wonders: Undertow of the Soul’ a world premier by Philip Kan Gotanda by Ubuntu Theatre Project (*****)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Theatergoer, if you take an interest in the avante garde, in experimental theatre, in art theatre, in the kind of theatre that goes well beyond the everyday and reaches for greatness, I urge you to go see Ubuntu Theater Project’s extraordinary, inspiring, mind boggling world premiere production of “Pool of Unknown Wonders: Undertow of the Soul” by Philip Kan Gotanda.

With this production, Ubuntu can lay solid claim to being one of the leading art theatres in the Bay area, and, quite possibly, in the entire United States of America. There can be no doubt, among discerning audience members, that the East Bay is currently experiencing an explosion of high theatre art, and Ubuntu is one of the brightest lights.

To see comparable work in the Bay area one would have had to attend, perhaps, Peter Brook’s production of “Battlefield” at ACT, or the reknowned Teatr Zar’s production of “Armine, Sister” at the 2015 edition of the San Francisco International Arts Fesitval.

This tight ensemble works with almost no set, and only minimal (but effective) lighting and costumes. They contort their voices and bodies to create an amazing range of events and emotions, even the weather (at one point they seem to be caught up in a typhoon). They are all excellent, but I must call out the especially fine work of Peter Stielstra, a recent high school graduate, who I believe is making his professional debut with this production.

The story loosely follows the adventures of several pilgrims on a search for the “Pool of Unknown Wonders” where, in some way, they will be saved. But they carry with them their histories (and, it seems much of the world’s history) as a kind of “Undertow of the Soul.” Playwright Gotanda notes that the work is inspired by Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East.”

There are references to inhumanity: Manzinar, war crimes, rape, theft, loss, many traumas to be inflicted and endured in our quest for  a peaceful world.

Who are these pilgrims? War refugees?  Criminals? Captives? Ghosts? Who knows? They are on a common quest, and they are all traumatized, and that is that.

A central rule of the quest is that all the pilgrims must reach their goal together, or not at all. Nobody is to be left behind.

It is no easy quest. As one character says of the world: “Hate never goes away. It only waits for the right combination of manure and lies.”

Yet, in spite of that harsh analysis, “Pool of Unknown Wonders: Undertow of the Soul” leaves us with a definite feeling of hope triumphing over despair, and a lifting of faith that together, we might find a way.

“Pool of Unknown Wonders: Undertow of the Soul” continues at the Julie Morgan Hall in Berkeley through September 23, 2018. For further information click here.

Rating: ***** (for an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Pool of Unknown Wonders: Undertow of the Soul,” a world premiere by Philip Kan Gotanda produced by Ubuntu Theater Project. Director: Michael Socrates Moran. Choreographer: Katie Faulkner. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Anne Johnson. Sound Designer: James Goode. Composer: Andrew Vargas. Costume Designer: Sarah Smith. Props: John Sorfleet. 

Cast: Nathaniel Andalis: Hamsun. J Jha: Monkawa. John Mercer: Mr. Figgy. Peter Stielstra: Gorkys. Dawn L. Troupe: Mrs. Bankhead. Mergherita Ventura: Sophie. Michael Aldrete: Karma. Dov Hassan: Karma. Indigo Jackson: Karma. Sharon Shao: Karma. 

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