Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?
Last winter, when The New York Times Magazine ran a feature under that headline, the idea of a creature that lives on and on with no biological death captured many readers’ imaginations. Turns out it’s real. It’s a hydrozoa called Turritopsis dorhnii, and it routinely reverts from its fully matured medusa stage back to its polyp stage — the marine equivalent, wrote the feature’s author Nathaniel Rich, of “a chicken that transforms into an egg, which gives birth to another chicken.”
Let’s steer clear of the question of which came first, and let’s head right to the second question on everyone’s minds: why can’t the immortal creature be us?
Nothing’s as easy as it sounds, though, and we’re not especially surprised when hubris takes hold of this dream, to caustic effect, in The Immortal Jellyfish. In Avalanche Theatre Company’s new play, getting its world premiere as part of fallFRINGE this month, our goals for the future bump up, inevitably, against the ghosts of our past. No one ever, really, starts anew.
Directed by Kristen Pilgrim from a new script by Keegan Cassady, The Immortal Jellyfish is a creation that morphs, like its namesake, into increasingly surprising shapes, beginning as a straightforward, solidly structured drama but ending as something more strange and translucent: a feverish yet ultimately sobering morality fable seen through a film of overlapping realities. What’s real becomes less a question of scientific possibility and more a matter of the immediate, more dangerous illusions of the here-and-now.
The events that catalyze this mutation are best discovered as you go along. But the first two thirds of the show are fairly easily laid out: we meet an ambitious young geneticist named Will (Johnny Day), who thinks he sees a way of mapping the traits of said jellyfish onto the human genome. Since this sounds perfectly safe and sets off no alarm bells of any sort, Will shops the idea around. He quickly ends up at odds with scientist Tara (Mary Myers), who has the resources Will needs to further his research but who draws the ethical line at gene splicing.
Combining human and animal genetic material prompts Tara to reference “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” and the literary and mythological references don’t stop there. Cassady is keen to highlight Will’s burning desire to kill death as a relatable and eternal human urge.
The Immortal Jellyfish
Closes November 17, 2013
Part of fallFRINGE 2013
607 New York Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20001
1 hour, 25 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $15 – $20
Details and Tickets
We have no doubt that things will spiral into mania and crushed hopes by show’s end, and some of the mystery that unspools throughout these scenes might be trimmed and tightened, so that the audience doesn’t get ahead of the story. Cassady’s main reveal toward play’s end is difficult to avoid guessing in advance, which doesn’t do any direct harm to the show but might pack a stronger punch with some moderate cuts to the lead-in during the second half.
But all the better for a new play to be a bit shaggy around the edges. The alternative — too few ideas — make for a much duller night. So although The Immortal Jellyfish chases its tail a bit, and brims perhaps too close to overfull conceptually, Cassady’s most of the way toward a very good play. His brainy scenework and crisp dialogue stirs up such an enticing assortment of themes — everything from myth, science, and storytelling to love, family, and subjective reality.
And since Avalanche is a company fond of art that touches on extremes, discomforts, and obsessions — their Fringe show Apotheosis this past July dealt creatively with drugs, sex, and depression to great effect — it’s gratifying to see Cassady’s project find a home with folks who care about the big picture and the little tricks in equal measure.
The Immortal Jellyfish by Keegan Cassady . Directed by Kristen Pilgrim . Featuring Mary Myers, Johnny Day, and Alex Alferov . Sound design by Tim Nielsen . Costume design by Katelin Lee . Lighting design by Mary Keegan . Projections by Keegan Cassady and Adam Johnson . Produced by Avalanche Theatre Company as part of fallFRINGE 2013 . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.