Slime: beautifully designed, tangentially told

Playing a character named Godfrey, Teo Saefkow manipulates a fish puppet that's made out of plastic bottle.

Godfrey (Teo Saefkow), who may be part fish, encounters one of his potential relatives in Slime. (Photo by Donald Lee)

She never steps onto the stage, but Shizuka Kai is the star of Slime. Kai designed the set, props, and puppets and her vision is one of the major forces that holds this production together.

In Slime, playwright Bryony Lavery imagines the third international conference on slime. In the world of the play, environmental degradation has created the opportunity for an aggressive type of slime to take over most of the ocean—and this slime is wiping out species as it rampages around the globe. At the conference, all sorts of creatures—mammals, fish, and birds—come together to strategize survival. Human interns fluent in everything from dolphin to sea bird dialects, provide translation.

Lavery has fun setting up her fable-like world: “For the duration of the conference, there will be no inter-species eating.” And there’s resonance—in the moments of silence, for instance, that the delegates use to honour species that have been driven to extinction: “the rusty grebe, the pygmy hippopotamus.”

But, theatrically, the most intense pleasures are visual. Kai has created the environment for this storytelling by repurposing plastic garbage. She gives us a giant polar bear puppet, for instance, made of bundled clear plastic. (This beast shares a smoke out by a trashcan with an intern who speaks a smattering of bear.) Delicate fish made of plastic bottles and tinsel swim by followed by jellyfish balloons that trail long, plastic tendrils. And the ocean is repeatedly evoked with giant sheets of plastic that float out over the audience and land in the central playing area to rustle and shimmer under William Hales’s glittering lighting.

But Lavery’s text treads water. Off the top, the playwright is too in love with her conventions. She’s so enamored with the idea of inter-species speech, for instance, that we spend more time than necessary listening to actors grunt and squeak. And none of the plotlines really go anywhere. A lesbian romance emerges but that’s about it. A hetero relationship repeats the tired trope in which the woman is all prickly until she’s not. And there’s a character who has elected not to speak because human voices are drowning out all others, but this figure is never more than an idea. An immediate threat finally emerges, but it acquires little narrative substance and the play’s ending is unsatisfying.

It’s possible that the makers of Slime prioritized the creation of an environment over the building of a narrative, but the advantage of a strong story is that it yields increasing insight and satisfaction as one travels through time, and that kind of accumulation is largely lacking here.

All of that said, there is an admirable integrity in director Kendra Fanconi’s production. It’s there in the thoroughness of the physicalization, which Fanconi no doubt guided—the ways that Kai’s contributions are used, the way a sea-loving intern named Godfrey swims around the stage on a little wheeled dolly. And it’s there in the consistently high standard of the design elements, including James Coomber’s sound (I loved the bowel-rattling roars and snuffles of the polar bear) and the inventiveness of April Viczko’s costumes, including the mesh leotard that gives Godfrey’s skin luminous, amphibious spots.

Impressively, Slime’s integrity is also apparent in the ensemble acting. Individual choices aren’t always stellar—playing an army general, Anais West gives the character a southern drawl, which is a cliché—but everybody including West, notably West, is committed to the material. She, Pedro Chamale, Lisa Baran, Teo Saefkow, Mason Temple, Sophie Wolfe, and Edwardine van Wyk all perform with a generosity and focus that you only get when actors are fully invested in their material.

If only the play told a better story.

SLIME by Bryony Lavery. Directed by Kendra Fanconi. Presented by The Only Animal and Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. At the Russian Hall on Friday, June 15. Continues until June 24.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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