seal sings its song
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 5, 2005
At the root of seal sings its song, the intriguing but problematic new play by Matthew Paul Olmos, are two compelling plot concepts. The first has to do with a man, gay and consequently already somewhat marginalized, who discovers in 1982 that he has a deadly disease then known as GRID (Gay-Related Immunity Deficiency; soon to be recategorized as AIDS). There's no cure, no treatment, and because the only people who seem to be getting it are gay men like himself, no great rush on the part of the establishment to provide any help. So, in an act that's part political statement and part activist science, he contrives to infect two women with his virus, in the hopes of getting some media attention focused on the looming medical catastrophe.
The second is about the plight of baby seals. Due apparently both to their overpopulation and their prized coats, these creatures became the target of brutal (though disguised as humane) mass murder in the hands of an international establishment bent on drastically reducing their numbers. Olmos imagines a man who, with his friend, captures one of the bludgeoned seals and brings it to his home, hoping to nurse it back to health and, presumably, release it back in the wild.
The man in paragraph 1 and paragraph 2 are the same guy—a quixotic iconoclast named Henry. The thing that makes both of these far-fetched and desperate actions feel like the vision of one man is their anti-establishment bent; but even given that, it's hard to understand why someone would undertake these two missions at more or less the same time. Henry does, giving seal sings its song its shape and arc, but ultimately not as much narrative glue as it probably needs. Though Olmos's objectives here seem humane and interesting, the actual implementation is murky as a tense medical thriller collides with a polemical environmental docudrama (complete with detailed explanations of how the baby seals are clubbed and killed). Two separate plays might have served the author's purpose better—I was never really clear as to what I was ultimately supposed to get out of the mix of stories presented here.
Details in the script are also troubling. Henry's partner in caring for the seal is a large but inarticulate man named Edmund. Who is he? Is he Henry's lover—is he the one who gave him AIDS? He's played by a black actor—is that significant? One of the women Henry seduces in order to spread his virus is a blatant stereotype referred to in the program and in dialogue as the Jewish Broad. What's this all about? Another character, Salina, appears to be the "soul" (if you will) of the dying seal that Henry and Edmund rescued; she counsels the others and sometimes sings snippets of "Mack the Knife." Olmos is clearly trying some things out here, but much of the time I wasn't able to make out his specific intentions.
Matters are not much helped by the direction of Eriko Ogawa, which is slow-pitched to the point of stagnation in places—the second act, in particular, felt very heavy and long. But Shawn W. Fisher's set design, using a few found items in ingenious ways to conjure a variety of locations, is impressive. Udi Pladott's sound and Benjamin Kato's lighting contribute much to the somber, portentous mood of the piece.
Michael Billingsley is surprisingly appealing and heroic as Henry; the anti-social actions of the character almost make sense and even feel human in his hands. Diana Forero and Beth Manspeizer play to type as Henry's victims, a Latin American immigrant and the aforementioned Jewish Broad. Jason Raines is utterly enigmatic as the usually silent Edmund, which I guess is what he's supposed to be; Moira Stone plays two different characters with sharpness and specificity. Chantel Lucier has the unenviable task of playing Salina.
There's clearly talent and intellect at work in this production, from woken'glacier, of seal sings its song; but the final product isn't nearly as edifying or satisfying as one might hope.