Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play, 75 minutes without intermission, was created by the ensemble and is presented in Transatlantic Love Affair's trademark style, which is without scenery or props. Instead, the ensemble create everything needed from a door frame to a fishing boat, and work with imagined props, such as a bartender busily washing glasses and serving drinks, or fishermen lifting flapping fish from their nets to be cut and tossed in with the rest of their catch. The ensemble also provide the sounds that accompany the settings and objects, such as the creak of an old door, the howl of the wind. or the calls of sea birds. The effects are wondrously inventive, and there is never any doubt about what is going on.
The story revolves around a selkie, a mythical being that lives in the sea as a seal, but on land can shed her skin to reveal a beautiful human It is set on a remote fishing island in decline, where the young people all clamor to leave the island for the activity and excitement on the mainland, to say nothing of the prospect of finding someone to fall in love with, save the titular fisherman named Peter, who states that he could never leave his home. A selkie gets caught in Peter's net, and he is enthralled. When her skin is blown back into the sea, stranding the selkiewhom he calls Annaon dry land, Peter brings her to his home and shelters her. He promises that he will search the seas every day for her skin, and is true to his word, but without success. Anna is desperately homesick but Peter's good heart, tender care, and chaste manner win her affection.
In time Anna is introduced to the community, who are so fond of Peter that they accept the unexplained presence of this lovely girl who clearly makes Peter very happy. They also accept the pair's unorthodox living arrangement, though a trio of old women who sew the fishing nets do prod him, asking "When's the wedding?" Peter is moved to wonder this himself, to wonder if Anna will accept and if she can be happy with a life confined to dry land. The questions, the answers, and all that follows compose the remainder of the play, told with simplicity, humor and enormous warmth.
The story is framed by a narrator who also plays an atmospheric accordion, composed and performed by Derek Lee Miller. This affirms the play's identity as a ballad, a story told through song and with a hefty dose of whimsy. Miller's score includes several recurring themes that expand on the emotions and enhance the beauty of each scene. Lighting very effectively marks such locations as Peter's tiny cottage, the fishing wall, the old women's workshop, and the pub that serves as community center. Director Isabel Nelson clearly possesses a rare ability to envision the possibilities of performance with only the most basic elements on stage, though I suspect part of her genius lies also in allowing her ensemble to own not only their parts, but the entire story, bringing their own understanding and creative sense of possibilities to the stage.
Although there have been some replacements to the original ensemble who first created Ballad of the Pale Fisherman, the current ensemble fully owns both the story and the characters they play. Most central to the story is Diogo Lopes (one of the original creators) as Peter. It is his ballad, after all, and he is a fully and lovingly created character. His rounded frame, boyish face, and deep eyes that bulge open when feeling delight (bringing a young Zero Mostel to mind) support his gentle nature. As the selkie, Emily King performs with lithe grace and loveliness, casting feelings of loss and yearning upon her face, and speaking in a voice that is learning to express emotions among humans.
Heather Bunch, Allison Witham, and Adelin Phelps are delightfully funny and touching as the three elder seamstresses, bringing great physicality to those roles. Alex Hathaway is a lovable old timer who regales all who will listen at the pub with tales of his early days and is a proper scoundrel as Owen, Peter's friend whose plan to jump to the mainland as soon as he collects enough cash prompts a rash act with profound results. Aside from their individual characterizations, the ensemble works beautifully as a unit, becoming a stand of sea grass being bent back by the wind, or a gathering of seals barking and flapping their fins upon the rocks.
I have seen several of Transatlantic Love Affair's plays over the past few years, but this is my first opportunity to see Ballad of the Pale Fisherman. As with their other shows, I am moved and delighted by the creativity, sensitivity and cohesion of this company, and by the simple but deeply felt stories they tell. Some theatergoers may prefer a more direct narrative and less attention to form. For me, the form with which Transatlantic Love Affair delivers its work is as much a part of its message as is the content of the play.
Ballad of the Pale Fisherman has in just a few years acquired the status of a classic within the context of the company that gave birth to it. This moving theater piece deserves a wider audience, beyond those who can make it to Transatlantic Love Affair's performances.
Ballad of the Pale Fisherman, a Transatlantic Love Affair production, continues through June 17, 2016, at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $24.00, students with ID - $18.00, free for Art Share members. For tickets call 612 340-0155 or go to southerntheater.org. For information on Transatlantic Love Affair, go to transatlanticloveaffair.org.
Conceived and Directed by Isabel Nelson; Created by the ensemble; Accordion Score: Derek Lee Miller; Lighting Designer: Mike Wangen; Costume Design: Anna Reichert; Stage Manager: Mikaela Voglund. This production was developed at the Illusion Theater as part of their 2012 Lights Up! Series.
Cast: Heather Bunch (Mabel, ensemble), Alex Hathaway (Murphy, Owen, ensemble), Emily King (The Selkie, Ensemble), Diogo Lopes (The Fisherman, ensemble), Derek Lee Miller (Ensemble), Adelin Phelps (Doris, ensemble), Allison Witham (Maude, Reilly, Ensemble).