The Water Draft

The Cincy Fringe Festival is an appropriate venue to raise questions about how Cincinnati or any city is managed because a lot of the people watching are likely to be sympathetic. But I also want the Fringe performances I see to be entertaining or engagi

I’m an aging Baby Boomer who often questions authority. (Exhibit A: I write for CityBeat.) There’s hardly a topic I don’t think warrants deeper exploration and, Lord knows, I can imagine many ways our city could be better managed.

The Cincy Fringe Festival is an appropriate venue to raise such matters because a lot of the people watching are likely to be sympathetic. But I also want the Fringe performances I see to be entertaining or engaging, and I’m sorry to say that The Water Draft, a work by veteran avant garde artists Michael Burnham (theater) and Barbara Wolf (film), failed to entertain or engage me.

In fact, at 75 minutes, it was way too long — I was itching for it to end at the half-hour mark because I knew exactly what would follow, regardless of how much time remained. Predictability is not what I expect in a Fringe show, and this one was tiresomely predictable.

Here’s how it went. We entered a lecture hall at the Art Academy with a video loop running about the Cincinnati Water Works, more or less documentary footage with interviews, facts, charts and such about the entity that provides our water. Then Burnham, shabbily dressed, wandered in and set up a camp chair in the front of the hall. He sat for a spell and then used the departure of the ebullient Fringe organizer and his announcements to shout some facts about the pollution of our bodies, and he was off and running with diatribes and rants about people in power (the “oligarchy” peopled by business leaders who might be “psychopaths”), changes in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and so on.

For the most part, Burnham was playing a character, an older man whose wife died of cancer in 2006, a loss he blamed in part on the forces he’s railing against. His commentaries were delivered as a kind of narrative about meeting an old friend in the vicinity of City Hall.

On one occasion Burnham dropped the persona and spoke as himself, but the particular comments — about impending changes to Washington Park — were in the same vein. Throughout the performance he wandered the stage with a sheaf of notes. At first I thought they were a prop, perhaps some crazed research his character had assembled to support his drunken rambling (he carted around an unopened beer bottle; at Saturday afternoon’s performance the bottle fell from his pocket and broke, an unintended event, based on his reaction — which Burnham, a skilled actor, incorporated into the flow of his narrative).

It became evident that the papers were actually his script. Burnham clearly knew the material and he’s a master storyteller, so this didn’t detract from his performance, but I wonder if there might have been more variety to his harangues had he memorized more of the material.

Interspersed with his rambling vitriol were clips from a film created by Wolf, focused on the topic of the City of Cincinnati’s recommendation to change the Water Works from a public utility to a private entity. We saw snippets of the city manager’s own video on the subject, interviews with present and past City Council members (Roxanne Qualls and David Crowley) and the retired director of the Water Works, plus several interviews on the topic that aired on WVXU, the local NPR news station.

Midway through the performance, Burnham’s comments were increasingly counterpointed with a steady stream of remarks from former City Councilman Christopher Smitherman, now president of the local chapter of the NAACP. In another of his ongoing campaigns challenging the wisdom of City Council and other city officials, we heard Smitherman in public settings and filmed interviews denouncing the evils of privatization of the water utility. (Smitherman has gathered enough petition signatures to put this topic on the ballot in November, as he has with several previous matters, most recently surrounding opposition to public rail transit.)

You get the point. I got the point. It was impossible to miss the point. Even if you agreed with everything that Burnham’s character had to say — and that Smitherman goes on about — I suspect you'd feel that this performance was more than you wanted to hear.

I admire Burnham's and Wolf’s heartfelt passion, but I didn’t need to experience this much repeated anger. In fact, I believe Burnham’s portrait of the character as a crazy old coot undermined the seriousness (perhaps even the legitimacy) of his argument.

He became the kind of person you see on a downtown corner delivering remarks to the universe and you decide to cross the street to avoid. I’m sure that that wasn't the intended response, but that’s what The Water Draft invoked.

(Get upcoming performance dates and venue details here.)