BWW Reviews: THE IMMORTAL JELLYFISH and SHRIMP AND GRIOTS Premiere at FallFRINGE
Although Capital Fringe's FallFRINGE welcomes back several shows that proved popular with summer audiences, it also gives Fringegoers a chance to see some new selections. Two of these new selections, Keegan Cassady's The Immortal Jellyfish with direction by Kristen Pilgrim, and Sheldon Scott's solo piece Shrimp and Griots with direction by Nancy Camp, tackle issues that are likely to resonate well with the socially-conscious theatergoing community in our fair city. Although both budding writers should be commended for taking a chance and putting their work out there, one show unfortunately shows much more promise than the other.
Cassady rips the idea of a specific type of jellyfish possibly holding a key to immortality right out of the headlines and creates a story in which Will (Johnny Day), a young, promising geneticist, deals with his grief over his brother "Kid's" (Alex Alferov) death in the only way he knows how. He sets out on a path to conduct research that, in his despair, he believes holds the key to bringing him back. Intense Tara (Mary Myers) provides him a platform and equipment to conduct genetics research at her larger laboratory, but at the time, doesn't quite know all of the details of what Will plans to do. Initially, the research (as presented by Will) doesn't seem so dangerous, but as she gets to know him (in more ways than one), she learns of the lengths that Will, with his clouded judgment, is willing to go to 'save' his now dead brother. Ethical and moral issues are raised, as well as more fundamental questions of what it means to be human.
Cassady has an interesting idea that shows promise for further exploration. True, numerous threads of the story need some tightening so that the audience does not get bogged down in the science or, in other cases, get ahead of the story. At times, Cassady's script can make one feel like he/she is being hit over the head repeatedly with the idea that ethical lines are being crossed and grief is real. Likewise, a sub-plot of a Will-Tara romance may not be so necessary. Yet, despite these quibbles, there's a fundamental basis in the script from which to build. At the heart of it all, Cassady has an interesting, compelling, original, and nuanced story to tell.
Cassady's Will is a richly drawn character (one that's well acted by Day), but Kid and Tara are largely one-note plot devices. While it may be ok for "Kid" to act as such, it's problematic for Tara to be such a cartoonish archetype because we never really find out what makes her tick (other than a dead husband and a passion for science/mythology) with regards to this specific type of research. Although it's unlikely many actresses would be able to do much with the character as written, Myers' acting choices (whether her own or the director's) make the situation worse. To show Tara's focus and intensity, Myers over-enunciates every word, and proves prone to some overacting that's reminiscent of what one might find in a high school production.
Nonetheless, for a first outing, the piece has promise.
If The Immortal Jellyfish was thought-provoking and original, Shrimp and Griots was not.
Conceiver/actor Sheldon Scott regales us with several stories about growing up in the low country of South Carolina - a young African American who was raised by a caring, single mother in a mobile home, always wanted to entertain, and was not necessarily like the other kids in his community. It's essentially one of those well-worn tales of a search for self-identity and acceptance - a story of a gay man growing up in the South which ends with his mother accepting his sexual orientation.
It's impossible to criticize the contents of Scott's story because it is his own, but as an audience member it was difficult to find much of anything interesting about him that would have the makings of a good solo piece. This unfortunate situation becomes further complicated by the fact that his delivery of his own material is so dry and seemingly over or under-rehearsed depending on the point in the script. As he meanders around the stage - sometimes finding his light and sometimes not, while backed by a curious and perhaps unnecessary projection of the outline of a person - he shares several stories.
Although there is a tie between the first story and the last (his sexual orientation), they are presented in such a way where there's little to no arc. Random references to his love for cars, his winning of a high school pageant, a meeting with his estranged father, and some success at doing well on the SATs left me wondering why all of that matters to my understanding of who he is. More to the point, I wondered why he needed to share any of these stories with us other than as a form of personal therapy, self-exploration, or reminiscing.
Perhaps with some dramaturgical help and some improvement in the acting area, Scott may have something to work with, but he has a long, long way to go.
Running Time: The Immortal Jellyfish runs about 75 minutes while Shrimp and Griots was, at the performance I saw, 35 minutes in length.
For further information about these Fringe shows as well as tickets, consult the Capital Fringe website. Graphics are courtesy of the Fringe's official website.