Wednesday, August 24, 2011

FRINGE: Whale Song, or: Learning to Live With Mobyphobia

There are plenty of theater companies out there that produce plays about women who have lost their fathers: grief is a popular topic. But there are few that are willing to risk pursuing such a story from a different angle -- through, say, a whale-sized metaphor -- and it's a genuine pleasure to see Dreamscape Theatre (as they did for The Burning Cities Project) and artistic director Brad Raimondo behind the wheel of Claire Kiechel's Whale Song, or: Learning to Live with Mobyphobia. Maya (Hollis Witherspoon) reacts to the possible suicide of her father, James (Gavin Starr Kendall), by summoning a whale into the Hudson River; unable to confront it, she spends her days teaching her first-grade students all about the etymology of "orca" and the inevitability of death, and her nights sheltered in her apartment, listening to an increasingly surreal reporter (Rosie Sowa) who begins to address her directly.

The script's a bit unpolished, particularly with the inclusion of Shep, the "motherfucking" drummer (Jordan Douglas Smith), though that's to be expected, given that Maya hires him as a literal distraction. Maya's boyfriend, Mark (Ryan Feyk), also needs to be less of a pushover -- similar to the way Maya's sister, Sarah (Siri Hellerman), is the voice of reason; Witherspoon's a solid actress, but she's forced to self-generate much her angst. That said, Kiechel nails the ending, as we learn exactly why Maya hates whales so much -- it involves another death in the family -- and why she's so obsessed with stories and significance. In addition, Raimondo's direction is spot on, from the way Maya's thoughts are manifested in shipping boxes that gradually overflow throughout her apartment to the staging of the news segments, which is done behind Maya, so that it looks as if we are seeing her thoughts, rather than what's actually on TV. Credit's also due to Sam Kusnetz's sound design: given that the theme of the play is about finding meaning where you look for it, it helps to have some genuine whale songs echoing through the La MaMa space.

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