A Thousand Thousand Slimy Things
nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
April 23, 2010
The performance of A Thousand Thousand Slimy Things takes place on a rickety old wooden boat in Red Hook harbor. The play A Thousand Thousand Slimy Things is about mermaids, sailors, oceanic explorers, and the sea itself, which makes this location a wonderful choice. Boarding the boat—the sun in your eyes, the ocean in your nose—you get a real sense of this world of the sea. However, once you're inside, you find the space itself is arranged like a typical black box theatre. Indeed, the show is staged as though we are in a theatre space when, in fact, we are on a boat. This contradiction sums up the experience of the current incarnation of A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things: a play full of wonderfully evocative ideas that are unfortunately under-explored. The result is an uneven evening with a tremendous amount of potential.
The play itself, written by Katya Schapiro, tells a number of stories. The central thrust is the true story of the Weeki Wachee Mermaids, a real life roadside attraction in Florida. One day, the company that owns said attraction transfers ownership of it to the nine women who live and perform there as part of this aquatic mermaid show. Far being a boon, this transfer of power spells disaster for the would-be mermaids: suddenly the Florida government is clamping down on them and throwing all sorts of sanctions their way, in an effort to close them down. But these mermaids are not going down without a fight. The mermaids of Weeki Wachee are not seasonal amusement park employees—these women live where they perform, as did their parents before them, and they're ready to defend their way of life.
This whole situation is fascinatingly dramatic, but in the play it, too, feels underdeveloped. The characters—especially Robyn, the leader of the mermaids—talk a great deal about how important this place is to them, how they have no where else to go, and how they need to fight for Weeki Wachee. However, through a combination of the script and the broad acting style, this never really rings true. As an audience member, I understood intellectually why this was important to them, but I never felt connected to the plight of these characters on an emotional level.
The secondary, and more engaging, plotline revolves around an eccentric sea explorer by the name of John. We first see John riding his iceberg/best friend Jake Jr. over the waves, and arriving on the doorstep of the Weeki Wachee mermaids, where he confuses these performers for actual mermaids. Ari Vigoda is refreshingly sincere as John, and his relationship with the iceberg is one of the more touching aspects of the play. The company as a whole feels more comfortable with this more fantastical element, as it does with the more abstract vignettes placed throughout the piece, that play with texts from sources as varied as Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and Shakespeare's The Tempest. These are by far the most engaging parts of the play.
In addition to these two plotlines, A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things includes the story of a sea captain, a mermaid transformation, and a group of silent and eccentric scientists who appear here and there to observe the happenings of the stage. What Polybe + Seats is trying to accomplish with A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things is admirable: a piece that combines abstract performance, an engaging narrative, and political activism into an entertaining evening of theatre. At present, though, A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things really does feel like it's exploring a thousand, thousand things, and this keeps the audience from experiencing any of one of these things with any real depth or clarity. There is a tremendous amount of potential in the many directions that this piece is pulling, and—as this piece has been in development since 2007—I don't imagine Polybe + Seats will stop exploring these fascinating, slimy things any time soon. I'll look forward to the next incarnation of A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things with great anticipation.