Apr 16, 2015

NY Times Review: Alexandra Collier’s ‘Underland’ Mines Rich Performances

Jens Rasmussen and Georgia Cohen
Anyone who has ever lived in a deadly dull town will understand why two bawdy-mouthed Australian schoolgirls dig a hole to China in Alexandra Collier’s “Underland.” It’s the only way out, they decide, from stone-quarry country. But they’re bad at geography, so the nice man who crawls out of their tunnel one day is from Tokyo. Back at school, the girls’ physical education teacher turns into a crocodile.

Ms. Collier, who is Australian-born and New York-based, has created six vivid, droll characters. In Terra Nova Collective’s polished production of “Underland” at 59E59 Theaters, Mia Rovegno has directed six assertive, beautifully delineated performances. The meaning of the play, however, is swathed in enough metaphor to suffocate Samuel Beckett.

Some motives are obvious. The tunnel diggers, Violet and Ruth (Angeliea Stark and Kiley Lotz), seek escape, sometimes through drugs. Taka (Daniel K. Isaac), the Japanese visitor, just wants to go home, as soon as someone brings him a glass of water, please. His Tamagotchi pet dies.

The teachers are less transparent. Miss Harmony (Georgia Cohen) is new in town, and no one can figure out why she’s there. Mr. B (Jens Rasmussen), whose instructional style suggests Marine boot camp, is also literally a killer. There are sightings in town of a real crocodile, but maybe it’s just Mr. B after his nighttime transformation.

Mrs. Butterfat (a very funny Annie Golden), though, appears to be the theme-speaker, while talking to her dead husband, Glen. “Crocs. They’re just down there, waiting,” she says. She dismisses a divine-retribution explanation of why so many locals are dying: “It’s not God; it’s the land. It’ll swallow you whole.” Aha! Living in a horrible place can eat your soul.

Rasmussen... as ruggedly, athletically entrancing as he is dangerous

Jens Rasmussen and Angeliea Stark
Underland, director Mia Rovegno and playwright Alexandra Collier's new play on stage now at 59E59 Theaters, starts as any coming-of-age teen story might. Two girls, Violet and Ruth, clad in school uniforms, light up a joint behind their school, share gossip and insults and curse words, brag about how little they care, and plot their escape from the humdrum, backwater Australian town in which they live. The rest of the play’s backbone is similarly recognizable: a beautiful young art teacher, Miss Harmony, comes into town and wants to inspire the students, catching the eye of the world-weary, cynical gym teacher Mr. B. But then the familiar fa├žade begins to slip, and the crass but endearing normalcy of the high school scene quickly gives way into something far more sinister and dark, as this coming-of-age tale in the outback spirals into a backwoods nightmare. A Japanese businessman crawls out of a hole that Violet and Ruth had been digging out behind the school, and people start turning up dead in the gaping quarry.

Georgia Cohen is naively sweet as the fresh-faced, hopeful Miss Harmony; it’s understandable why both the younger and older generations are drawn to her. Violet, played with convincing teenage angst by Angeliea Stark, falls for her in a big way, in part because Miss H encourages her artistic ability and gives her a camera, suggesting that her art could be her escape to somewhere new. Mrs. Butterfat also falls for her, recognizing her younger self in the woman. Annie Golden's portrayal of this unapologetically eccentric religion teacher -- who doesn’t seem particularly religious at all -- may be the highlight of the play, in part because she’s laughable in her oddball ways, from carrying on conversations with her long dead husband to zipping up her bright yellow windbreaker and heading out on long bike-rides in the dark of the night. She does her best to help Daniel Isaac’s very lost businessman Taka, and console Kiley Lotz’s confused and fearful Ruth, but they may be beyond saving. Her vigilance and endless quirks might be what it takes to survive in a desert town of extremes, from the scorching heat to the frigid cold of night, where crocodiles roam the streets and from which it seems there may be no escape.

In true horror story tradition, supernatural forces jar loose to wreak havoc and seem poised to drag us all down to hell, or at least to far, far away places. Yet it isn’t all impossible, and part of Underland’s depth is its ambitious commitment to remaining a vague, unsettling allegory about the things that are out to get girls alone at night and the terrifying allure of monsters. As Mr. B, Jens Rasmussen plays this ambiguous role well, and with surreal choreography that adds elegance and seduction to the play’s threats, he is as ruggedly, athletically entrancing as he is dangerous.

The intimate scale of the space makes way for Elisheba Ittoop's sound design, which pairs the natural, sans-microphone vocal performances with eerie a capella lullabies, the insidiously maddening drone from the quarry creeping throughout, from a subtle background hum to a piercing shriek. Burke Brown’s lighting and Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s set design create a space that transforms through subtle, powerful shifts, from the metallic, prison-like confines of the schoolyard to a suggestion of the incongruously vast, beautiful expanse of the outback's open sky.

These elements weave together into an impressively immersive environment that is, in a word, scary. But Underland is the best kind of scary. It's the kind of scary that's so hard to describe but so easy to recognize. It's the kind of scary that you don't notice at first, that creeps in around the edges, capable of capturing the audience in its jaws and swallowing them whole.

by Emily Galwak for Stage Buddy

Jens Rasmussen is quite striking

Jens Rasmussen & Georgia Cohen
It's not often that a playwright sets out to mystify an audience as resolutely as Alexandra Collier does in Underland. The setting is "a small, dusty town in the middle of Australia," and believe me, this Underland is no wonderland. Drought conditions prevail. There are warnings about crocodiles, reportedly moving ever closer to town in search of water. People have a way of turning up dead or disappearing altogether. And what about the man who staggers on stage at the opening, looking disturbed and pulling a bloody tooth from his mouth?

Following this ugly display, the play switches gears, focusing for a while on Ruth and Violet, a pair of adolescent girls who dabble in smoking pot and gossiping maliciously about everyone they know. Violet is the prettier, more dominant one, to whom Ruth anxiously kowtows, but they make a perfectly matched pair of hellions, amusing themselves by sitting in the back of art class and making annoying meowing sounds while their new teacher tries to introduce herself.

The teacher, Miss Harmony (Collier favors names right out of Restoration comedy), is new to town; in one of the play's sharpest, funniest passages, her easygoing, let's-be-friends manner is contrasted with the scalding, hard-ass approach of the gym and math teacher, Mr. B. ("You're like flaccid wombats, the lot of you," he says, offering his own special brand of motivation.) It's not long before a little B-Harmony romance is in the air; at the risk of giving away too much, let's just say that she discovers that passion has its price.

Then there's Taka, a Japanese salaryman sitting in his Tokyo office, listening to exercise audios and playing with his tamagotchi, a tiny little digital pet that, in this case, meows like a kitten. He finds a hole in his floor and, getting inside, begins crawling along it until he exits -- in the Australian town inhabited by Ruth, Violet, et al.

As Ruth and Violet, Kiley Lotz and Angeliea Stark offer hair-raisingly accurate portraits of the kind of sullen, rebellious adolescent who makes one think fondly about reviving corporal punishment, but each of them gradually reveals layers of uncertainty that make them more than just caricatures. Jens Rasmussen is quite striking as the furious, tough-talking Mr. B., who harbors a powerful, all-consuming passion for Miss Harmony, and is also in possession of a terrible secret.

-Read the whole review by David Barbour at Lighting & Sound America

Apr 15, 2015

Chatting at the E:Bar with... Jens Rasmussen

What’s something unexpected or surprising that you learned about Australia through doing this play?
There are crocodiles in Australia’s interior AND that digging “to china” is inexplicably universal even though digging through the center of the earth from the Australian interior really lands you closest to Puerto Rico. So where do kids in China dig to?
What word do you say to key in to your Australian accent?
Two words actually - Don’t Smile. But just to be clear, I do actually smile in the show - well, not that much come to think of it…
Describe your childhood imaginary friend or foe. Can you draw a picture for us?
I had a reoccurring nightmare: in the dream my mother and I would finish saying my evening prayers in my bed (a bed which came from a nunnery by the way), she would tuck me in and close the door to my bedroom. Behind my bedroom door was a gun cabinet (for real - not just in the dream). When the bedroom door was closed the gun cabinet was revealed and in the reoccurring dream a demon would be sitting on top of the gun cabinet. I was trapped with no way out. I would wake up screaming. Good times.
Drawing of my reoccurring childhood nightmare 

Where is your home town? Did you ever want to escape from it?
My home town is Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I actually didn’t ever feel trapped there. We lived by one of the largest lakes in the state, and my folks got me a second hand windsurfer. Windsurfing is one of the most incredible feelings of freedom a person can experience. We also spent lots of time on the small farm my father and grandfather owned together. When we didn’t have chores, my younger brother, Hans and I would crawl through the woods and swamp making up adventures. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, my parents always had international guests staying with us: people from Iran, Israel, South Africa, New Zealand, Finland, South America, and many more. My folks always gave us a good view of the horizon beyond out little town, and the tools to tackle it on our own when we were ready. All my siblings and I went out on our own at 18 and never came back.
What’s your favorite Australian animal and why?
If I had to pick just one one it’d be the Dingo - misunderstood, intelligent, loyal, survivor now hunted and endangered. A close second would be Sugar Glider - can you handle the cuteness? https://youtu.be/FSx__5yIrmc
This interview was originally published on the 59E59 blog

Mar 27, 2015

People You Should Know... Jens Rasmussen

An UNDERLAND interview by Zack Calhoon, originally posted on his site


When did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
I had one of those magical Catholic high school choir teachers who loved Rod Stewart, believed in me, and gave me opportunities to grow. If it hadn't been for her - I shudder to think what might have become of this boy from Oshkosh with buck teeth and a Lego obsession.

Tell me about UNDERLAND. How do you feel rehearsals are going? What do you love most about the show?

UNDERLAND is wonderful. It's part Jerusalem, part Mean Girls, with a dash of Alice in Wonderland and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Rehearsals have been an absolute joy. Mia runs a beautiful room and brought together an amazing group of artists. Every designer and every actor has impressed me. I'd be excited to do any project with this group of artists. What I'm loving most about the show right now, is the moments we're building that bend time and space, in surprising, and I hope, compelling ways.

What kind of writing inspires you?

I adore writing that feels natural yet elevated and Ally's writing has this kind of muscular lyricism. My absolute favorite experiences in the theatre is when a piece moves me, and yet I can't verbalize why. Then I know the writer has peeled back a layer of my experience at the very edge of my understanding. It's exhilarating and maybe a little scary.

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your work as an actor thus far?

I think of actors like Michael Lague, who I looked up to when I was an apprentice over 20 years ago, or Michael Chekhov's writing, which I went back to over and over again, or brilliant actors like Mark Rylance, whose work constantly inspires me. But oddly enough, at this point. I think students have influenced my work the most. It's really true that teachers learn and students teach. Being in a studio with young actors has been a great facilitator to my own understanding of my work and process, as well as a tremendous source of inspiration.

What else are you working on right now?

In addition to UNDERLAND at 59E59, I'm in pre-production for THE LITTLE PRINCE which I'll be directing this summer in Georgia, and doing initial prep for A WINTER'S TALE which I'll be performing in at the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival.