Marine Life spawns apocalyptic rom-com

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      By Rosa Labordé. Directed by Diane Brown. A Ruby Slippers Theatre production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Friday, March 15. Continues until March 23

      The first note I made while watching Marine Life was “This guy doesn’t know how to fish.” In the opening scene, Sebastien Archibald as Rupert casts into an imaginary river like he’s playing badminton. This is in character, though. This is Rupert’s first attempt at fishing.

      Which explains why he accidentally hooks Sylvia (Christine Quintana). Sylvia is not a fish, but she kind of wishes she were. She’s a strident environmental activist, revolted by fishing, plastic, and nearly everything in between. Rupert suggests the aquarium as a location for their first date, but Sylvia compares that to “going on a date to Rikers to look at prisoners”.

      And yet this is the “meet cute”, so they fall for each other. Their relationship is soon complicated by Sylvia’s mentally ill brother, John (Alen Dominguez). Sylvia tries to keep the self-harming John alive while negotiating her tempestuous romance with Rupert, a corporate lawyer. The funny rom-com vibe turns decidedly apocalyptic as their city experiences torrential rain and flooding.

      That summary might sound simple enough, but there’s a lot to take in, in Marine Life. The production starts on a high emotional note—Sylvia hollering in pain—and mostly stays there for 90 minutes. Along the way, the script oscillates between the couple’s easy banter and darker monologues about marine debris and our aquatic ancestry. Most scenes are accompanied by projections by Jordan Watkins and Ryan McDonald on a huge screen upstage. And did I mention that John sometimes plays guitar and sings mariachi tunes?

      Both Sylvia and Rupert end up being caricatures. She is absurdly uncompromising in her beliefs, while he’s constantly finding new ways to express his fragile masculinity. Meanwhile, John is manipulative, demanding all of Sylvia’s attention. It’s hard to know who to sympathize with.

      You’re never bored, but director Diane Brown didn’t quite tie all these elements together. Sometimes the photorealistic projections worked, other times they were a distraction. Several scenes occur outdoors in the rain, but John Webber’s lighting design didn’t do enough to establish a feeling of torrential precipitation. Meanwhile, Drew Facey’s set was a series of low platforms atop bunched plastic sheeting. “As the world is overflowing with plastic, so too is the stage” seemed too on the nose.

      I don’t typically remark on actors’ footwear, but it’s reflective of Jessica Oostergo’s very particular costume designs. In his first scene, John wears hospital socks, foreshadowing his illness. Meanwhile, Sylvia wears blood-red boots that look like leather, hinting at a subsequent crisis of faith. And Rupert fishes in galoshes, the de facto footwear of hapless weekend warriors. There are also some scuba fins used to excellent comic effect.

      Oddly, I’ve never seen a successful play with environmental themes at its heart. Activists are often frustrated by the abstract, existential nature of the climate-change threat. Maybe this is why it’s so hard to write a play about it?