Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Finding Fish
Illusion Theater / Carlyle Brown & Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Parchman Hour, The Realistic Joneses and The Last Firefly


Steve Hendrickson, Bill McCallum,
Jenifer Blagen, and Paul de Cordova

Photo by Lauren B. Photography
Finding Fish deals with an issue of timeliness and urgency—the devastating reduction of fish in our oceans, attributed both to overfishing and changes in oceanic habitats due to climate change. Carlyle Brown's play, being given a world premiere production at the Illusion Theater, raises this issue in the context of one family's struggle to survive, and the ethical issues that are entangled with their long festering resentments and disappointment. Brown has also woven mythology into his story, offering a solution that is in fact not a solution, but a fantasy that enables one fortunate character to forestall the fate of environmental degradation. Unfortunately, the components—eco-political prĂ©cis, domestic drama and flight of fantasy—rarely cohere in a satisfying way, leaving Finding Fish with tremendous but mostly unrealized potential.

The play is set in the future: far enough into the future for virtually all fish to have vanished from the once teeming coast of New England and maritime Canada, and for New Boston to have been built to replace the original Boston, which now sits under water. Depending on one's view of the trajectory of unchecked environmental destruction, this may be a not too distant future. In any case, New England's fishing industry has been wiped out for all but one lone fisherman, Peter Morgan. Peter manages to haul in a bounty of fish day after day, enough to keep workers employed at a nearby fishery, the engine for the entire local economy.

Peter lives in a modest house overlooking a bay on the coast of Maine. This is where he and his younger brother Michael grew up as the sons of retired fisherman Henry, whose father and grandfather before him also made their livings from the sea. Since his wife Martha died several years ago, Henry has lived on his own in a trailer nearby. Shortly afterward, Peter met and married Fiona. While Peter followed his dad's line of work, Michael is a prodigal son who left home. His fortunes are still tied to the sea, but take a quite different bent as a marine biologist whose warnings of the dangers of overfishing infuriate his father and brother. Michael, who had not been back since his mother's funeral, shows up announced, on a mission to learn the secret of Peter's singular ability to continue harvesting fish from the near-barren ocean.

As Finding Fish unfolds over two acts, the rivalry between Peter and Michael becomes apparent, as do resentments between Henry and Michael. Fiona is described as a very shy and simple girl, but is, in Henry's words, "a good girl." Her shy nature does not preclude her from swimming nude outside their window, or running from the surf into their home fully naked, unfettered by Henry and Michael's presence. Michael is keenly aware of Fiona's bizarre speech, manners and demeanor (really, who could not note these?), and Peter cautions Michael to leave her alone. Further, Peter steadfastly refuses to reveal the secret of his success. Michael accuses Peter of being greedy, unwilling to share his methods that could enable the fishing economy to survive and to provide food in a world of diminishing resources. As we learn the true nature of Michael's mission, it is clear that he, too, has made compromises. Henry vacillates between both sides of his sons' argument, but mainly talks about the heartache of seeing the way of a fisherman's life slipping vanishing.

Unfortunately, the key to the mystery at the heart of the story is made apparent in a brief preface at the very start of the play, making the unspooling of the narrative a question not of learning the secret, but wondering how characters will figure out what we already know. That this secret comes not from a strategic or scientific source but from mythology that says nothing about the real-problem solving the issues raised by the play demands, is dispiriting. The play concludes with a long speech that reiterates what will happen to the oceans, and the rest of our planet—and implores us to change—but never depicts or helps us to imagine what viable solutions might look like.

Director Noel Raymond does as good a job of knitting the story together as possible, given the flaws in the basic concept. Some points feel overly blunt, as if the audience might by chance not pick up on the familiar conflicts among these characters. Any play in which a character's proclaimed course of action is followed at once by a thunderclap and lightning bolt, (having had no sign of rough weather to this point), leading other characters to blurt out "Not in this weather, you're not!," leaves little room for a director to deal with subtleties.

In spite of the play's shortcomings, the quartet of actors on stage all deliver solid performances. Bill McCallum is especially strong as Peter, struggling to maintain the secrets that keep both his livelihood and his marriage afloat. Steve Hendrickson is terrific as the aging fisherman, nursing his regrets and trying to make sense of his fast-changing world. Paul de Cordova does well portraying Michael as a virtuous man of science forced to work within a system that is corrupt and self-serving. As Fiona, Jennifer Blagen handles the unique physical demands of the role and manages to imbed strong emotion into her very constrained speech.

The production also looks great. Dean Holzman has designed a cutaway of the Morgan family home kitchen, simple but exuding a nautical atmosphere. This is where most of the story unfolds. On the other side of the stage, a wharf juts out from shore toward the sea, and when this space is used, it has the effect of expanding the play, connecting it the world beyond the close kitchen quarters. C. Andrew Mayer has designed a soundscape that fills the air with sounds of the sea and storms, as well as video footage that provides a backdrop of the pounding surf. Mike Wangen's lighting design creates the needed changes in focus, and Clare Brauch's costumes serve each of the characters well.

It is certainly possible for a play to use a family or small group as the crucible on which much larger current issues are hammered out, and there is no question that the very real threat of environmental chaos bought on by climate change and over-extraction of the earth's resources cries out for dramatic expression. But to succeed, the issues must appear organically, rising out of the conflicts among characters. In Finding Fish the issue is bluntly proclaimed, and the drama feels like an afterthought, a way of coming back to the statement of the issue over and over. The element of fantasy, while it has a certain charm, further undermines a sense of biting drama and purpose. The effort and intent is clearly of the highest order, but the execution is a letdown.

Finding Fish, a co-production of Illusion Theater and Carlyle Brown & Company, continues through October 29, 2016, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $20.00 - 30.00. Senior (55+) and Student (with ID) discounts are available. For tickets call 612- 339-4944 or go to illusiontheater.org. For information about Carlyle Brown & Company, go to carlylebrownandcompany.org.

Writer: Carlyle Brown; Director: Noel Raymond; Set Design: Dean Holzman; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Costume Design: Clare Brauch; Sound and Video Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Prop Design: Kellie Larson; Fight Choreography: Heidi Batz Rogers; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhodes; Production Stage Manager: Sarah Salisbury.

Cast: Jennifer Blagen (Fiona), Paul de Cordova (Michael), Steve Hendrickson (Henry), Bill McCallum (Peter).


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