Rasmussen is both a dangerous and erotic presence

Jens Rasmussen & Georgia Cohen
The Australia of TV commercials: the Great Barrier Reef, the Sydney Opera House and swoon worthy landscapes, is nowhere to be found on the stage at 59E59 where Underland has opened. Instead this is the industrial desert of the outback, all red earth, tin buildings, the throbbing of the quarry and a vague undercurrent of dread. It is this Australia, by turns comedic, tragic and a bit confusing, in which Underland plays out.

In this landscape, a school is the one place that offers the possibility of something unusual happening. And waiting for that unusual thing are two school girls, Ruth and Violet. Violet is small town mean girl, playing at being a rebel. Ruth is her long time friend and co-conspirator, happy to be part of a group but always worried about the consequences. Angeliea Start as Violet and Kiley Lotz as Ruth bring these characters effortlessly to life. They both want, desperately, for something to happen in this tiny hamlet. And something does.

Two strangers arrive at school. The first, Miss Harmony, is a new Art Teacher that spies promise and talent in Violet. They slowly begin a mentor relationship that gives Violet hope for a better life. Georgia Cohen gives life to Miss Harmony, a teacher hoping to reach her students. Violet responds well to the attention of this new, enthusiastic teacher. However Miss Harmony has another vying for her attention, the school alpha-male teacher, Mr. B. As portrayed by Jens Rasmussen, Mr. B is both a dangerous and erotic presence.

Ruth finds her own stranger in the form of Taka, a Japanese salary-man who arrives in the middle of nowhere via a tunnel from Tokyo. Taka is confused and lost, but Ruth is ecstatic to have found something completely new. Daniel Issac as Taka does an amazing job by pretty rapidly helping the audience move past the bizarreness of his appearance in Australia and care about this man. But Ruth has a competitor for attentions of Taka, the long widowed Mrs. Butterfat. Mrs. Butterfat is excellently played by the veteran Annie Golden; she walks Mrs. Butterfat right to the line of caricature, without going over.

If this makes Underland seem confusing, just wait. Writer Alexandra Collier throws in salt-water crocodiles in subterranean rivers, late night biking, a killer in thrall to the hum of the earth and ruminations on the choices we make when growing up. The result is often confusing but always involving. Director Mia Rovegno never lets the story slip into farce or fantasy, always preferring an honesty that someone makes the whole story hang together.

I am not sure I understood Underland, but I am sure that I am rooting for Violet and Ruth to make the right choices. And that engagement with characters makes for a satisfying trip to the theater.

See original review at Whats on Off Broadway.