Courtney Lomelo as Polly. Photo Credit – Gentle Bear Photography.
Written by: Keian McKee
Directed by: Matt Huff
Choreographed by: Jennifer Wood
Original Music: Andy McWilliams
Company: Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company
Run Dates: July 31 – August 16, 2004
It’s a blissfully exciting feeling when you first hold your breath and open your eyes underwater. A world opens up where what you see and how you feel is completely different from your normal waterless existence. But stay down there too long and your eyes start to sting, your lungs ache and all your instincts scream for foot on dry land. It’s a similar experience watching Keian McKee’s ambitious, at times wonderfully creative but ultimately water-logged new play about one woman’s journey to deposit her dead mother’s ashes and say goodbye. Upon first blush, the play’s delights are many but spend some time and those delights get betrayed.
Pollywog, getting its premiere at Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company under the direction of Matt Huff, introduces us to Polly (Courtney Lomelo), an adult woman struggling to move past her beloved stroke-victim mother’s recent death. Taking a cue from the hours and hours her mother spent teaching her (with drill sergeant obsession) to swim, Polly embarks on her first open water swim, carrying her mother’s ashes along the way. It’s a dangerous endeavour, one that most swimmers wouldn’t attempt alone and one that most likely would have made for a rather dull solo performance. Instead, McKee sends ghosts from the past to occupy Polly (and the audience) as she attempts to make it across. In a series of flashbacks, we meet Polly’s mom, Jule (Celeste Roberts) in her pre and post stroke state and Mort (James Belcher), Polly’s father and get a glimpse into the relationship dynamic the three shared. Also along for the journey as allegorical guides and touchstones are famed swimmer/movie stars Esther Williams (Autumn Clack) and Johnny Weissmuller (Jason Duga), heroes of Jule’s and Polly’s.
It’s an interesting construct setting the play inside of Polly’s head either in real-time or as she mines her past. But despite Huff’s incredibly nimble time warping direction, Jennifer Wood’s wonderfully athletic choreography that mimics all manners of swimming with great gusto, moody and effective lighting courtesy of Greg Starbird and strong performances from everyone in the cast, McKee’s script fails to resonate. Part of the issue lies with the language. Much of the script plays like spoken work poetry rather than actual dialogue. Verbs are tossed out. Nouns too. Not always together. It’s an effect meant to simulate memory and flashes of insight, but more often than not, it feels laboured and affected.
Far more problematic is McKee’s lack of interest in the inner lives of her characters. We see Jule as little more than a woman hell-bent on teaching her daughter to swim. Yes, we know Polly loves her, but we’re left to question why when there seems to be so little warmth or breadth to the relationship. We are spoon fed Polly’s grief yet we know nothing about her outside of the pool. Mort’s depiction is even more knotty. Shown as a man far more interested in getting it on with his wife than forming a relationship with his daughter, he is at best dismissive and worst, cruel to Polly. And ultimately both to Jule when her body betrays her. The ‘bad guy’ character satisfies the need for tension to be sure, but it’s a hollow and distancing effect due to lack of context. At no point is the curtain pulled back to show Mort’s motivations or Jule’s for being with him or the emotional core of the mother daughter connection. We certainly feel for young Polly when her father forces her to eat the tadpoles she caught as some kind of power play punishment. Watching Polly try to impress her mother by mastering a new stroke has its uplift as well. But empathy or engagement beyond a moment by moment level is almost impossible when we aren’t given anything substantive to hold onto. A grief-stricken woman swimming with her mother’s ashes is just an idea unless you’re made to care.
But while the emotional demands of the script weren’t justified, the production still manages to shine thanks in large part to the visual splendour that the Esther and Johnny characters bring to the stage. Whether it’s assisting Polly in her strokes (holding arms and legs to create effect or spinning her on a stool to simulate direction change) or creating ballet-like pairs water moves while spouting swimming theory, Clack and Duga execute Wood’s demanding choreography with an ease that belies the physical intensity involved. It was these scenes that elicited smiles and approving gasps from the audience and ultimately brought a kind of creative magic to the production.
As exciting as it is to see a play in its premiere production, especially a risk-taking show like Pollywog, it’s rare that first incarnations of these kinds are problem-free. McKee has a compelling idea with her show and a production team that can obviously do wonders with it on stage. My hope is that with another examination of emotional engagement and some script tweaking, Pollywog can wriggle back onto the stage at some point and provide the experience that was lacking this time round.
For the occasional theater goer – This certainly isn’t conventional story-telling but with such broad strokes (no pun intended) the play isn’t all that demanding either. Most probably you will greatly enjoy the physical acrobatics of Esther, Johnny and Polly but that may not make up for the lack of heart-pulling attachment to the characters or their situations. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – There is no harm in seeing a new play to pull from it what works. And there is a lot on the production side that does. A uniformly strong cast, great choreography, visually complex direction and the seed of an idea that certainly intrigues. But in the end, there’s only so much that can be done with a script that just isn’t there yet. Taking the plunge on Pollywog at this stage mean being ok with its deficits. MAYBE SEE IT