Last Thursday I went to see Fishtank. Heading home after the show, I ran into a friend who had gone to see the Hives. He asked me what I’d seen, and I wasn’t quite able to tell him.
This is a failure of words on my part. The show was essentially clowning. Four people walk onto a beautifully constructed stage, many things happen, you laugh, there is pathos, everything ends mostly for the best. I was reminded, perhaps unfairly, of Slava’s Snow Show.
As Dominique Serrand says in the trailer on Youtube, there is no plot. The four characters stumble through their world, befuddled by it but at the same time filled with childlike wonder and joy. What makes that wonderful is that all four managed, in the course of the show, to infect the audience with that same feeling. Nathan Keepers and Steven Epp were of course wonderful, but that is no surprise. Every time I see a show at the Jeune Lune, I get excited when they walk on stage. I believe it was Andy who said the other day, “I’d go to one of their shows to see Steven Epp cough.”
At the start of the show, the characters simply appear on stage. There is no special setup. There is no abrupt dimming of the lights. Mr. Keepers just walks on stage and asks if anyone in the audience has lost his keys. All four actors introduce themselves, and you are entirely conscious of how fabricated, how acted, they are. Everyone is given some time to settle into the idea of watching a show. Keepers’ cell phone rings. It is from Epp, standing right behind him. He wants to make sure Keepers told everyone to turn off their cell phones.
The performance does not have much of a setting either. The set is wonderful, but it is whatever the actors wanted it to be. There is a giant fish tank, or steam room, in the center, with a vending machine on the side. At the opening of the show, it seems to be a subway station, but for all you know it is a hotel lobby or a government lab. The simple movement of a table changes the scene to a restaurant or airport. A television is rolled on stage and begins to play scenes from Baraka. Water and smoke rise from within the enormous tank. At one point actors literally tunnel into their set in search of building materials.
When a real problem finally does occur, in explosive form, the plot produces no set answers. However, the production answered a lot of my questions.
Q: Is it worth going just to see Steven Epp cough?
Q: Does there have to be a point?
Q: Can talking through a box fan on stage be funny?
Q: Is there taconite in the sweater?
A: Actually this was left undetermined.
Q: Is there something sinister about creamer cups?
Q: How many water effects should be built into a performance?
A: As many as you can get away with.
Q: Is the after show discussion worth it?
A: No. I felt very sad for Mr. Serrand when he had to answer the question, “When you grab the books, and say ‘More building blocks!’ do you mean that books are building blocks of culture?” Really, people, discretion is the better part of not looking like a fool.
In many ways this production was a relief to me. I’ve liked what I’ve seen there recently, but this show does not just play to their strengths, it is built from them. In abandoning any semblance of a plot, they were free to make all the beautiful stage pictures, and play up all the physicality that defines their company. Part of what made the production feel so life affirming was the fact it was an affirmation of the actors themselves. I am going to see a production at another theater this week, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’d rather just see Fishtank again.