by Steven Pisano
Back in 2008, Heidi Rodewald was nominated for a Tony and won an Obie for her musical "Passing Strange," which was eventually turned into a film by Spike Lee. She has collaborated many times with singer/songwriter Stew. Writer Donna Di Novelli is known for her fascination with "found text" as the basis for her lyrics written for various music-theater projects.
Together, Rodewald and Novelli have written the new song cycle "The Good Swimmer," which is currently playing at BAM Fisher through Saturday as part of the 2018 Next Wave Festival. First seen as a sneak peek back in 2016 at the Prototype Festival, "The Good Swimmer" isn't a work of theater per se. There is a band on stage throughout (including Rodewald on electric bass) that includes electric guitars, drums, keyboards, cello, trumpet, and violin. On a scrim above the band, there are projections and videos, including images from old lifeguard manuals and the roiling ocean. Throughout, a group of seven lifeguards move around behind the band and occasionally gather into tableaus, without directly conveying the lyrics being sung.
The main "story" of the piece--although there is no straight narrative and each song has a different metaphoric focus--concerns one of these lifeguards: a woman, whose brother was killed in the Vietnam War. Throughout the work, there are correlations and connections made between lifeguards and soldiers, each charged with saving lives, but in different ways.
The most moving song for me was "Double Drowning," which poetically delivered a manual's dry description of a double drowning, which is when a drowning victim fights with the lifeguard to stay on top of the water, so that they both drown and no one is saved.
The principal vocalist was David Driver, who has worked with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, and who was in the original cast of the Broadway musical "Rent." He was an anchor throughout the night, his firm and steady singing always plugged directly into the emotion of each song. Clara Kennedy, the cellist, also took center stage to sing a handful of songs.
"The Good Swimmer" was effectively directed by Kevin Newbury. Video designer Greg Emetaz and lighting director Eric Southern did an excellent job of giving just enough for the audience to look at, staying true to the moods of the songs: whether mournful, happy, or angry.