Written by Bryony Lavery. Directed by Kendra Fanconi. Produced by the Only Animal and Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. At the Russian Hall on Saturday, June 16. Continues until June 24
Before the world premiere of Bryony Lavery’s new play, Slime, even begins, the audience knows things are going to get a little weird.
The music playing overhead is familiar at first, and then something tilts. Songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Steal My Sunshine” and “My Heart Will Go On” come over the speakers, but animal grunts and sounds have mostly replaced the English lyrics burned into our collective memory through Top 40 ubiquity. A voice welcomes “conference delegates” to the third annual Slime conference, and then suddenly the audience is surrounded. A cacophony of animal vocalizations—birds squawking and singing, sea lions barking, bears growling, and the clipped chatter of dolphins—fills the air, followed by the whoosh of a giant, clear plastic tarp skimming the heads of audience members, like waves crashing in and pulling us under for just a few seconds.
This immersive beginning is a fitting entry to the wildly creative play that imagines a not-so-distant future in which interspecies communication is key and conferences are still considered useful. Humans and animals have joined forces against a common threat: slime is invading the planet, slowly taking over the oceans, and the resulting environmental chaos is speeding up total planetary extinction. Slime’s main characters are college interns/animal translators, plus a dancer who’s taken a vow of silence to protest human voices prioritizing their own concerns over the animals at the conference. When they discover a secret, elitist plot that goes against everything they’ve been working to accomplish, they realize that some people have no qualms about sacrificing others for their own survival.
The play loses a bit of momentum when it gets sidetracked by some of its subplots, particularly those mostly concerning the romantic pairings and desires of its characters. The cast is very good, but the only relationship that works on any level is the beautiful queer love story that emerges between Ola (Lisa Baran) and Barb (Edwardine van Wyk, a real standout), a bird translator and a seal translator, respectively. Slime’s premise is so intriguing, but it almost feels as if Lavery doesn’t quite trust the audience or the material enough, and added a bunch of extra emotional intimacy stuff in order to hook us deeper.
Where Slime truly astounds is in Shizuka Kai’s brilliant set, prop, and puppet design. Working very deliberately with the same plastic that is polluting our oceans, Kai fulfills that early promise of weirdness, bringing an entire underwater world to life inside the Russian Hall, as well as multiple animals and sea creatures, and a giant smoking bear. Director Kendra Fanconi’s production is beautifully imaginative, and Slime has so much potential at its foundation, but the story never quite comes together and a jarring revelation in the play’s final moments results in a too-tidy resolution.