Marine Life: a bit watered down

Guest review by David Johnston

Ruby Slippers is presenting Marine Life at the Firehall.

Alen Dominguez, Christine Quintana, and Sebastien Archibald: in over their heads in Marine Life. (Tim Matheson pic)

There are several plays inside Ruby Slippers Theatre’s production of Marine Life. I even enjoyed one of them.

My favorite Marine Life is the screwball romantic comedy. Here, lawyer Rupert (Sebastien Archibald) and activist Sylvia (Christine Quintana) have a highly improbable meet-cute and immediately begin dating. This is followed by lots of fighting and bantering and declarations of love amidst rat-a-tat jokes. She loves the environment! He goes fishing! Can these two crazy kids make it work?!

Archibald and Quintana have legit chemistry, which is good, because Rosa Labordé’s script is uninterested in the nuts and bolts of building their relationship; it prefers to skip to the arguments and quips. (Archibald in particular is excellent at this.) There are secrets, there are twists, there are well-observed moments of gravitas. It’s all handled well.

But there’s also the Marine Life that’s the stoic family drama, in which Sylvia has to navigate her tricky codependent relationship with brother Juan/John (Alen Dominguez).

There’s also the Marine Life that’s the magic realist absurdist fantasy with singing and lengthy monologues involving drowning metaphors. Someone eats six bottle caps. Someone wears a full wetsuit and flippers. Someone talks to whales. It’s a lot.

There’s also the Marine Life that’s an environmental Buzzfeed listicle: Sylvia occasionally stops talking like a normal human and starts pedantically lecturing about how golf courses are destroying our fragile ecosystem with green dye and click here for nine more shocking facts. At one point she basically starts a Ted Talk. Climate change! Factory farming!

Then there’s the Marine Life with the gun.

What I’m saying is that this show has an enormous issue with tone. Most of the Marine Lifes have potential. Diane Brown’s production could handle any two or three, but simultaneously weaving them all together causes the whole show to buckle under the strain. A lot of little moments work because the cast is committed and charming. A lot of larger moments don’t because the playwright hasn’t done the legwork to support the bigger plot swings.

Juan/John is the biggest lightning rod for this instability, which is illustrated perfectly by the fact that he has two names; the character is asked to be way too much. Is he a free-spirited mariachi busker? A mentally ill invalid? A danger to himself and others? A poetic dreamer? A manipulating schemer? He has to be all of them, and the resulting portrayal is stretched to incredulity. Dominguez does decent work, but he’s the servant of, like, seventeen masters.

The script is also plagued with false endings; the last ten minutes could and should be airlifted out wholesale. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the playwright’s unwillingness to commit to the boldest plot twist destroys any accumulated emotion.

Drew Facey’s set is nicely understated, with a few risers buoyed afloat by reams of discarded plastic. The complicated video design from Jordan Watkins and Ryan McDonald often verges on ’90s PC screensaver, but successfully pulls a few emotional levers. The rest of the design elements are nicely in place.

Actually, there’s a lot about this production that’s nicely in place. Brown brings a workmanlike energy and the performers earn their frequent laughs for the most part.

Marine Lifeis a good show, but it could have been a great one if the script were content to be a big fish in a small pond — as opposed to a guppy adrift in an ocean of plots.

MARINE LIFE Written by Rosa Labordé. Directed by Diane Brown. Presented by Ruby Slippers Theatre. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Friday, March 15. Continues until March 23. 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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