In a setting filled with unusual sights, it's still surprising for a neophyte Burner to encounter the Thunderdome at Burning Man. Like many of the structures in Black Rock City, the Thunderdome is geodesic. Unlike many, it has no chill space, no comfy cushions, no blissed-out people offering to share their bottle of Jim Beam. There's no artwork, papier- m¥chô or otherwise, and no effort is made with carpets or tarps to keep down the ubiquitous playa dust. No, the Thunderdome is as true as its Death Guild creators can get it to the original, that palace of pain dominated by a gloriously chain-mail-shrouded Tina Turner back in Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome.
The Thunderdome at Burning Man has everything: an MC dressed in a long black leather with small bat wings at the shoulders, a bored Queen overseeing the combat between people in bungee cord-powered harnesses armed with foam-covered sticks, and dozens of people clinging to the outside of the dome like so many dusty flies. A roar goes up when two men strip off their shirts and wiggle their black-jeans-clad legs into the harnesses. This image is familiar to anyone of a certain age, anyone who grew up with the fear of nukes and the instructions from their president to dig a shallow trench shelter under the car if they saw a mushroom cloud in the distance.
Dust, dehydration, and men fighting over shrinking resources -- playwright Eliza Anderson knows the drill when it comes to what happens after an earth-changing calamity. But Anderson puts her own twist on things in the company's incredibly spare three-person drama The Water Principle, now playing at the Eighth Street Studio. While there is no Thunderdome in this show, there is a desolate setting, a woman with a shotgun protecting her water, and two men with questionable motives circling her property. But where the Mad Maxers went with car chases, explosions, and mayhem, Anderson is much more subtle and biting. This well-cast production is the perfect match of company, play, and actors, and manages to be both funny and deeply scary at the same time. It's a thinly veiled warning about the possible fate of consumer society that quietly, steadily builds to an intense, unsettling climax.
Brusque, unsentimental Addie (Kate Sheehan, making her first Shotgun appearance) initially appears describing a dream to the audience. It's one of the softest things we'll see her do, as she spends the rest of the play trying to avoid being ensnared by the smooth-talking Weed (John Thomas) and the goofy Skimmer (Ian Petroni). Both men want what she's got, but it takes a while to see what that might be, in a progression that unfolds slowly as the three reveal their massive blind spots. This is one of those productions where you may not like the characters but nonetheless find their flaws are fascinating.
Addie might have been raised by wolves, for all she knows about other people. Weed is slick, but quite deluded; a "man of action" who dreams of building something completely absurd. Skimmer is just what he calls himself, a fella who skims along, trying not to get tied down to anything -- "anything" usually meaning women who might require more of him than dancing and sharing purloined canned food. The alliances among the three shift, shimmer, disappear, and reappear in new forms in a series of short scenes, all set around Addie's run-down house. The atmosphere is dry and despairing, while the catastrophe that led to the land being abandoned is never explained.
John Warren's casting is impeccable. Sheehan's rawboned, physically awkward Addie radiates distrust and a certain slow cunning. She may not be able to read Weed's true intentions, or the written contract he offers her, but it's clear that this is a result of her isolation, and her natural defensiveness serves her well. It's so unusual to see a woman at the center of this kind of story. From as far back as 1949 when George R. Stewart wrote the ur-post-apocalypse novel Earth Abides, our protagonists have been largely male, trying to survive in a harsh world in their manly ways. It's not just Mad Max, it's Waterworld, The Postman (a much better novel than movie), even "Rowdy" Roddy Piper in Hell Comes to Frogtown. In The Stand, Stephen King let women be some of the heroes, but that was unusual. Usual is women in scanty outfits made of leather scraps and that coarse brown burlap fabric that's apparently quite plentiful in the future. Women who somehow are still able to shave their legs and pluck their eyebrows between desperate forays to find water and being traded as slaves. Women who have little to do besides hang on the hero. In one stroke, Anderson has broken the mold. Sheehan and her deliberately stilted delivery present a new sort of hero.
Similarly, we all think we know what the post-apocalyptic future looks like. So it's refreshing that in Warren's staging of Anderson's grim future, Weed is actually clean, and continues to wear suits. John Thomas uses his body and big preacher's voice in much the same way here that he has in his other Shotgun roles, but he stretches out in a way that he didn't in either Troilus and Cressida or Mother Courage and Her Children. Weed is smooth, duplicitous, and didactic; he uses beans and lollipops to try to win over the recalcitrant Addie and then Skimmer, then turns to barely concealed threats. He is completely amoral, which is delightful to see Thomas do with such vigor and sneakiness. Cast as his polar opposite, Ian Petroni (making a career with Shotgun playing clueless-but-lovable) is the loping, well-meaning Skimmer, who just can't take anything seriously. Of the three, Skimmer will make the most dramatic change, which is suggested at the very end; he may be the only character who truly finds some kind of redemption.
There's a conspicuous absence of quasibondage gear, dusty bandoliers, and scrappy children trying to ingratiate themselves with Mel Gibson, and thank god for that. Because, face it -- if you survived a huge catastrophe, would you be out welding a flamethrower to your car (Burning Man devotees, pipe down) or would you be home, protecting what you held dear, eating earthworms, and wondering whom you could trust? Anderson has taken an old story -- a land without water, people without hope, a world without heroes -- and reimagined it in a profoundly adult and intelligent way.