More Beneath the Surface but Mermaid Needs Teeth – Deep Sea Astronauts’ Development Showing
Mermaid Teeth (2013) is a new play by Alli Sebastian Wolf, still in development but recently featured at the Bondi Feast Festival. This short play, approx. 45 minutes, offers a fresh setting: a life raft in the middle of an ocean, with only a cabin boy, Keys (who is genetically predisposed to drowning) and The Captain, a character reminiscent of The Simpsons’ Sea Captain, aboard. Their ship has recently run afoul of a storm and sank with all other hands. The pair are hopelessly lost and adrift in unfamiliar waters. So, to pass the time, The Captain regales Keys (and the audience) with his collection of humorous seafaring tales. Their situation complicates when a Mermaid suddenly surfaces. The Captain, it would seem, has a rather sordid history with these aquatic creatures. The mermaids (in line with their original, more malevolent portrayal) possess a menacing quality underneath their guile and charm – they actually butchered The Captain’s crew … all in self-defense though. As we learn more here, we also discover that the innocent Keys is not everything he seems.
Wolf has written a rather fun little piece of theatre. The Captain’s monologues are very enjoyable and it would seem that Wolf has a fine sense of comedy. Yet as acknowledged, this is still a piece in development and as such it could profit from a little editing in places. For example, pop culture references to the film Iron Man 2 (and pokemon) don’t belong and the play wouldn’t suffer from their removal. Also worth noting is the tone of the piece. Strangely, considering the gender of the writer and director, the show at times risks sounding anti-female. If the Mermaids are to read as being representative of the female gender, which the text invites us to do, then the play depicts them as cold, soulless creatures who use their sexual wiles to destroy men. As such, The Captain’s attitude towards them is one of repulsion and revile. Although the Mermaid attempts to persuade him otherwise, her interjections are rare. The fact that The Captain is the more verbose and charismatic character, (ridiculous, it’s true, but loveably so) the audience tends to side with him. Certainly, the Mermaid’s argument isn’t helped when she is finally revealed to be the monster The Captain always claimed her to be. For the most part though, the comedy allows the play to just skirt this issue without falling into it outright, however going forward they should use caution. This could be taking the play too seriously, but the reading is certainly there to be made.
Having said that, the show has many good ideas; they would only benefit from strengthening the thematic coherence. A particular theme that might be further developed is the idea of loneliness, and the courage it takes to endure it. This ties in nicely with many of the plot’s features, as well as ideas associated with the sea. This however, is pure spit-balling.
As to the performances, Richard Cox plays the slightly off-centred sea captain. Cox has a great energy for this role; he also maintained a wonderful ‘pirate accent’ which, although familiar, suited the character. However, the risk for this piece, and indeed the role, is that it could become just The Captain monologuing for an hour. This means that the actor may stop working within the ensemble. Cox didn’t exactly do this – but he must be careful not to treat the play as a monologue, remembering the others are there to serve the story too.
Anna Chase played ‘Keys’, the young boy (who turned out to be a girl) and faithful companion to the old Captain. Chase was aesthetically perfect for this classic pantomime role, and hit the level of innocence required. Yet Chase suffered in the voice department, having a softer voice which (often) could not compete with Cox’s. Worth a mention however is Chase’s success with the dry accordion. Importantly, she managed the sound levels, which were never imposing and instead added nicely to The Captain’s stories.
Kathleen Hartigan played the ‘commanding and curious’ mermaid, demanding to be understood as a strong and beautiful creature. Hartigan was certainly beautiful and definitely sultry, with a firm voice to match. Yet Hartigan had little character to play with, and instead served (unintentionally perhaps) as an ideological mouthpiece. She simply countered The Captain’s arguments with little independent characterisation. This may simply be a writing issue, but unfortunately Hartigan suffered from a lack of ‘purpose’ within the story.
For the next development stage, writer Wolf might be interested to change the Mermaid character into a simple voice that appears and disappears with the sea’s mood and possibly, with The Captain’s mental state. It would likely heighten the magic of the character, without suffering from some of the budgetary and practical constraints of depicting a mermaid on stage.
Overall, this piece has promise; Wolf can certainly spin a yarn in an entertaining and engaging way, and the material she has to work with is rich and fresh. The play’s theme does however need further development. Wolf states the play is ‘reflective on our ability to rise against adversity or to wrap up tightly in self-delusion, and the consequences of that choice’, yet as it stands now, ‘fear of the female’ seems closer to the mark. This isn’t to say the piece is awful, far from it, it entertains for the whole 45 minutes, and with some work it could become a quality piece of theatre. Watch out for it in the future.
The play has finished its limited run, however further information about Deep Sea Astronauts can be found at: http://www.deepseaastronauts.com/