Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Marine Life, written and directed by Rosa Laborde in collaboration with Aluna Theatre and now playing at Tarragon Extraspace, is a fable for our times. Through witty and perceptive dialogue, excellent acting, and an amazing set featuring both factual projections and touches of magic realism, this one-act piece shows us the interplay between the planet’s damaged oceans and the characters’ damaged lives. Despite these themes, the play is (as the playwright notes) a comedy in the true sense of the word – it provides some hope for redemption (at least partial). Not traditional theatre, but exciting, provocative, and well worth seeing. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
There are three characters in this ensemble drama – actually, three characters played by actors, while water itself is the fourth character. It is not often that a playwright directs her own work, but Laborde has done a beautiful job of bringing her words and vision to vibrant life on stage. I refuse to spoil the experience by giving away too much plot. Sylvia, played with passion and growing self-awareness by Nicola Correia-Damude, wants to save the world: – specifically, she wants to save the oceans and the fish, whales, and other marine life from pollution & death by plastic. She also feels responsible for her brother John/Juan (their father was Mexican), who has mental-health issues. Justin Rutledge, a Juno winning singer/song-writer who recently turned to acting, plays John with compassion and humour, making the character likeable despite (or because of) his quirks. Rutledge’s Mariachi singing and guitar playing is a highlight of the show. Brother and sister have been together since their father abandoned the family and mother ended her life in the bathtub, young Sylvia unable to save her. Sylvia wears non polluting clothing,works for an environmental agency, and even tries to filter the medication from John’s pee before flushing,so it won’t harm the fish.
Despite these attitudes, she falls in love with a corporate lawyer named Rupert, who literally “hooks” her as he tries fishing for the first time, and he falls deeply in love with her – perhaps as a way to save himself. Rupert, played with a combination of coolness and naivete by Matthew Edison, tries hard to be a hero but sabotages himself by the secrets he keeps (one involving plastic!).
The characters’ emotional tensions rise and climax, just as, in the city outside, rain pours down and floodwaters rise higher and higher. An earlier draft of the play was written before the floods of this past summer (in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, the West Indies, and elsewhere) but these disasters have made their way into the script and affect our awareness. The flood leads each of the characters into a surprising new world in which they see a “sea-change” in their relationships. Sylvia, especially, experiences a transformation, and Rupert and John become closer. Maybe we can’t save the whole world, but we can find peace by helping a small piece of it.
Set, lighting, and projection design by Trevor Schwellnus is an integral part of the play. The set consists of two blue hemispheres (our blue planet), one a platform on the stage floor, one as the back wall. Weather maps, water scenes, even a baby beluga from Marine Land®, are projected on this wall; at the end of the play we see a chart depicting climate change over many years. During the flood scenes, even the floor looks wavy. There is also a bench the actors use in various ways. Hundreds of clear plastic containers (coated with fire-retardant) are strung behind these hemispheres and around the theatre… suggesting the growing amount of plastic debris in the waters of the earth, as well as a watery, fishy world. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound, as usual, enhances the production; in this play, he creates a wide range of sound effects to portray the various natural phenomena. Lindsay C. Walker’s carefully-crafted costumes help reveal each character’s traits.
This play interweaves several themes: effects of pollution; how we come from the sea, both as a species and in embryonic development; how people are both individuals and interdependent, with each other and with the world around us. The characters are individuals but also types, since the plays shows how, in many ways, “we are all in the same boat.”
Marine Life runs at Tarragon Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue, through December 17.