Dunking the Fishtank

Fishtank: n. a diffuse, silent comedy ostensibly done in the
spirit of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. I couldn’t help but make comparisons
to Play Time, my favorite Tati flick (I just re-watched the restaurant scene
last week). This was Tati’s all-out screed on modernist architecture, if you’ll
recall. In my mind, the physical acting is less funny than the extremist
perspectives of the filmmaker. Tati goes to great, comic lengths (and toes the
line of tedium) to illustrate his disdain for contemporary architecture and its
sullying effect on the Parisian streetscape. Now, to make my point here: I’m
not the sort of theatergoer who demands a message, or even a point, from the shows
I see. Nor do I require a cohesive narrative arc (although I do happen to
believe that story is inherent to the best art). However, this show is
something else–lacking in both perspective and narrative.

The basic premise: examining the little obstacles and comedies
in our mundane, everyday existences. But there were only two instances in which I,
as an audience member, recognized something in the situations: one performer (Nathan
Keepers) encountered a few problems when passing through an airport metal detector,
which was played to great comic effect and ended up being the show’s highlight;
another performer (Dominique Serrand) got stuck on the phone in voice mail hell.
Man, I’ve been there. But other than that, the situations were too obscured to breed
familiarity–or, for that matter, any emotional investment in these characters.
And it’s pretty, damn boring to watch a show that’s inhabited by people you
could give a rat’s ass about.

It’s got to be said: Jeune Lune has a history of omitting the
playwright from its creative process. In fact, I believe their adaptations of
operas and classic texts have succeeded because of the built-in storylines.
Plus, the company demonstrates reverence for their preferred dead
scribes (Shakespeare, Molière). But their "ensemble-created" work, in my
opinion, has often been diffuse, disjointed, lacking in any sort of thread, too pleased with itself, and therefore emotionally
isolating (bear in mind here: I wasn’t around for the benchmarking Yang Zen

I "get" the clown thing. But the key to succeeding, as a
clown, has always been to cultivate an alliance between audience and performer.
In other words: The two of us ought to be in on this joke together. For
whatever reason, I wasn’t invited to attend this joke. In fact, by the end of
the night, the only thing that was clear to me about these characters was this:
They’re awfully enamored of their own cuteness.

So, the gloves are off. But before I dispense with my final criticism,
I suppose I ought to make the disclosure I always make when writing about Jeune
Lune: I used to work there, in administration. I have no lingering
hostilities. I liked the job. Many of my most memorable theater-going
experiences were at Jeune Lune. I want to see this company succeed. But of
course, I was sad to see some of my favorite people (to say nothing of their
artistries) leave the company, in 2006.

My final point on Fishtank: Jennifer Baldwin Peden’s
character–the sole woman (it felt somewhat like watching the Smurfs)–speaks baby-talk. Also, she seemed to be costumed as a Japanese schoolgirl. So,
obviously, there’s a huge difference between finding one’s inner idiot/clown and
infantilizing the sole female character. For many women, I’m afraid, there’s
nothing funny about watching a grown woman behave and be treated as a precious, little six-year-old.