'Fishtank': the Play That Got Away

It won't blow you away: Dominique Serrand and Jennifer Baldwin Peden in 'Fishtank'
Michal Daniel

at Theatre de la Jeune Lune
through March 22

If you've ever watched a small rodent in a Habitrail, you've probably experienced one of those moments when the arrow of metaphorical insight points right back in your direction. Mister Whiskers seems pretty entertained, and certainly views his life as full of challenges and choices (perhaps even moments of high drama), but you know better. And then you start wondering about all the travails and passions in your own little corner of the world.

Jeune Lune's Fishtank doesn't do anything as obvious as pointing out that we make a universe out of what could be considered a little bowl; if anything, it's greatest fault is not making much of any point at all. Instead it offers up impressions and gestures that tickle the edges of larger ideas without confronting them, amid imagery that ranges from pedestrian to inspired, albeit with a focus on its own meandering nature that at times verges on self-criticism.

The tone is set from the outset, and this show's greatest asset is an easygoing goofiness that is elastic enough to allow for welcome ambiguity. We have Jules (Dominique Serrand), Jim (Steven Epp), and Harry (Nathan Keepers): The trio arrives on the set and begins fussing with things in lockers at stage left. Their emotional range runs from apologetic bashfulness to low-simmer anxiety.

Next we meet Coco (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), who applies a childish sternness to our three male stumblebums, waving them through an airport security scanner, intimidating them with an electric floor buffer, and generally acting as a figure of awe and fixation as the evening moves in free-form style from one vignette to the next.

At the center of the stage is a giant, clear chamber that, as matters take their course, serves as a place for Coco to escape and Harry to have a bath, and as a showcase for a passel of dancing flowers. Other high jinks revolve around an ATM/vending machine, a consistent stop in any respectable human Habitrail.

Things drift along semi-agreeably, but what grows throughout the evening is a sense of opportunities left on the table. Each performer in this ensemble-created work seems to be stubbornly playing against his strengths. Serrand, frequently a visionary with words and imagery, plays passive and ineffectual in a passage about phone trees and immigration. Epp, an actor of sometimes startling range, stays in low gear as a confused nebbish. Keepers, for his part, summons some laughs during his bath scene (bawling, then disappearing into the watery depths), but often disappears behind his moustache amid the odd torpor and passivity that frequently grip this show.

Toward the end, there's almost a sense of making up for lost time. There's a gas-leak explosion, and a lovely sequence set against a musical adagio with paper falling and Epp rhapsodizing about the beauty of his credit card number (and Peden, finally, unleashes her gorgeous voice). If anything, the air of lost opportunity grows thicker. Given Jeune Lune's signature sophistication and beauty, I can imagine the possibilities if this piece had embraced the company's strengths from the start and then found a way to subvert them with the symbolism and slapstick at work.

I don't really choose to believe that this is a piece about incoherence and vacuity (admittedly major aspects of contemporary culture); the restless, stubbornly anti-sentimental, affirmative streak I always locate in Jeune Lune's work has long provided evidence to the contrary. But this night of half-formed gestures and laconic meandering leaves me trying to find a point to it all (aside from a basic recognition of camaraderie and trust, held out as sweet ideals through action rather than speechifying). I suppose, in the end, it all boils down to a basic point: This comedic Fishtank just isn't very funny. I'd love to see it done another way; there's delight underneath these waters someplace, but the maze of my own existence led me to a very unsatisfying night when I sat down for this show.

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