- Swimming in the Shallows
By Adam Bock
Directed by Scott Fortier
Produced by Catalyst Theater Company
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Describing Swimming in the Shallows as a quirky little comedy with surreal touches would be accurate, but that description alone would fail to convey what a smart and entertaining production awaits you at Catalyst Theater Company. Playwright Adam Bock provides a funny exploration of some of the problems and anxieties that can underlie modern relationships, be they man-woman, woman-woman, or man-shark (more on that shark later).
Barb (Ellen Young), inspired by a story that Buddhist monks only own eight possessions, starts to consider what material and emotional baggage she needs to shed. She is friends with co-worker Carla Carla (Adrienne Nelson), who feels pressured to have a commitment ceremony by her significant other, Donna (September Fortier). Another friend in this mildly dysfunctional Rhode Island social circle is Nick (Christopher Janson), a man who is quick to fall in love and into bed, but who is now starting to question his inability to build a committed relationship.
Barb’s efforts to shed belongings causes conflict with her husband Bob (Scott Bailey), whose is frustrated by his inability to understand his wife’s new attitude. Donna resolves to prove her commitment to her partner by quitting smoking, but her lack of success and her lack of honesty in the process only increase Carla Carla’s doubts. Nick resolves to take it slow the next time he’s attracted to another male, which happens to be the Shark (Patrick Bussink) at the Aquarium where Donna works.
The story addresses the characters’ issues with fast-paced dialogue and considerable wit. Barb holds a garage sale only to wind up with more possessions than she started with. The wedding between Carla Carla and Donna is on and off again almost as fast as a strobe light. Nick debates with Barb whether his feelings for the Shark are love, infatuation, or just a crush.
Aah, the Shark. We first see the Shark (played by an actor in a surfing wet suit with a fin on his back) swimming in the aquarium. From his initial dialogue (“Swim, swim, swim, halt, glass, glass, watch out for the glass”) he gradually develops into a full character, alternately winsome, threatening, likeable, and pensive.
The play is funny, and at times even hilarious. When Nick asks Donna to introduce him to the Shark, her responses (“I barely know him,” “I don’t want him to get hurt,” etc.) juxtapose familiar reactions with a surreal circumstance in humor typical of the production. A series of dream sequences illustrating the characters’ hopes and fears (including a hilarious dance medley featuring Nick and the Shark at a club) are a highlight of the evening that defies exposition.
What makes the play different and deeper than the typical wacky comedy, however, is the heart underlying the humor. Barb is genuinely concerned about changing her life, and it will have a real human cost. Carla Carla has serious relationship anxiety. By the end of the show even the Shark provides a touching speech about how he misses the ocean.
The success of the production results from a professional melding of script and performance to create fully realized characters. Playwright Adam Bock has a real ear for accurate and amusing dialogue, and this talented ensemble cast delivers it with energy and style. While the characters portrayed by Ms. Young and Ms. Nelson provide the emotional center of the work, every performance works. Special kudos go to Messrs. Bussink and Janson for one of the best portrayals of characters in an interspecies romance that I have seen in years.
Swimming in the Shallows is not a particularly deep work (sorry, couldn’t resist). At times it plays like an episode of Friends you might imagine in a chemically-enhanced haze. Overall, though, the Catalyst Theater Company production of Swimming in the Shallows provides a fast and funny evening of theatrical entertainment for the price of a movie.
This production is the directorial debut of Catalyst Artistic Director and two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee Scott Fortier. He keeps this quick-moving production on course through seamless scene changes and nimble character bits. If this production is generally indicative of his talents, I am looking forward to his future work.
[Warning: play contains flashes, strobe lights, and Rhode Island accents]
Running Time: 1:15 (no intermission)
Where: Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh Street SE
When: Thursdays through Saturdays until March 8, 2008
Contact Info: Call 1-800-494-TIXS or consult the website.