Last night at the Russian Hall was the world premiere of SLIME, a new play by the award-winning playwright British playwright Bryony Lavery (the crime drama Frozen) that is being produced by The Only Animal following a workshop at the Banff Centre. Staged in the round by director Kendra Fanconi, and featuring impressive scenography that makes endlessly inventive use of sheets of plastic, the play is a rather confusing apocalyptic thriller about climate change and inter-species communication that also tries to be an academic satire.
The action takes place sometime in the future at what we are meant to understand is the third international anti-slime conference, the first such event to which animal species other than humans have been invited. Our guides for the proceedings are a series of young human interns who specialize in different animal communication systems and are thus there to act as translators. Frezzle (Pedro Chamale) is an expert in dolphin, Barb (Edwardine van Wyk, an SFU Theatre alum) is fluent in the languages of other sea mammals like seals and otters, Ola (Lisa Baran) specializes in the different calls of sea birds, Godfrey (Teo Saefkow) swims with and speaks to the smaller schools of fish, and Coco (Anais West) is, I think, mostly interested in what amphibians have to say. There are two additional characters: Ev (Mason Temple, deftly motoring about the stage on a mini-segwey) is the tech liaison for the interns and also is learning a bit of bear; and Dumbo (a wordless Sophia Wolfe) is apparently present to act as a sign-language interpreter for all the other species for whom there are not assigned interpreters.
At the start of the play, the conference seems to be a celebratory event, a paradigm shift in the relations between humans and other animals, and as the auditorium fills with the various animal sounds made by our young interns, and as they additionally tell us about how excited they are to hear from their academic mentors, the tone is hopeful. Then, too, there is all of the ancillary activity between the interns that forms a sidebar to the main conference event. Mostly this consists of hooking up with each other, with Barb and Ola's sexual attraction initially sparked by a mutual meeting of minds, and with Coco and Ev simply wanting to get off with each other. Frezzle watches frustratingly from the sidelines. Soon, however, our group uncovers a secret plot that is not on the official conference agenda. With the slime they are all there to study apparently taking over the planet, leading scientists and other political and cultural elites have hatched a social darwinist plan to decamp to a remote island that will become a protected sanctuary for the world's human one percent. Betrayed by their own mentors, riven internally as a group (Ev, in particular, wants to join the island elites), and with their animal friends now turning on them, the interns must confront what they've all avoided to this point: the slime itself.
Ironically, this is where I fell into a black hole of incomprehension regarding both the plot and the politics of the play. Is the slime good or bad, human-made or naturally occurring, harmful to other animal species or modelling another way to adapt and evolve? Fanconi's program notes extol the collectivist ethos of slime, but the conference at the heart of the play is an anti-slime conference. And the ending is similarly paradoxical: the slime appears to swallow up Dumbo when she tries to communicate with it, but then we're told just before a final blackout that the plastic mass under which Wolfe's body lies is trying to say something to the interns. I wish that this message--and that of the play as a whole--had been telegraphed more clearly. In the stridently earnest delivery of most of the actors' lines we're meant to understand, I would gather, just how urgent are the issues being addressed in the play. And yet I was left without any sure sense of what kind inter-species relationship is being posited here and whether we as humans are meant to learn from slime, or learn to fear it.
As for the plastic under which Wolfe's body lies, Fanconi and her design team work with it to create some amazing bits of scenographic magic. It unfurls like a canopy above the audience's heads and then becomes a murky sea filled with other bits of plastic detritus. It is fashioned by puppet designer Shizuka Kai into a towering polar bear who likes to smoke, and also into delicate fish and sea urchins in a touching scene in which Godfrey narrates the death of one of the aquarium inhabitants under his care. Sliced and crumpled up, the plastic also, when dumped in the middle of the stage floor, appears to expand on its own--which was my only concrete sense in the whole play of what slime can actually do.