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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Average-Sized Mermaid

On Friday of last week I trekked miserably through the melting, sooty, city remains of Wednesday's "snowpocalypse" to catch State of Play Theater Company's production of the new play, "The Average-Sized Mermaid." I muttered curses under my breath as I waited on the subway platform (and then another, and another), pulled my too-thin winter coat around me and sloshed over curbs in my cheap winter boots that are already starting to let water in through the heel. I grumbled all the way up to the box office as the cheerful State-of-Player found my reservation, and then grumbled a little more as I slunk down in my chair at the Gene Frankel theater and waited for the play to begin.

Needless to say, I was in a bad mood. See, I had already made the sojourn from my comfy Harlem home down to the village once this week, only to discover upon arrival that the play had been cancelled due to snow, and the two hours of time I was to have spent commuting could have been better utilized curled up on my sofa with a cup of hot chocolate. A smarter person, I suppose, would have called the box office and asked if the monstrous snow conditions were causing any trouble, but I am apparently not that wise.

Furthermore, it was the Friday before Valentine's Day, and, from what I was told, this was a ROMANTIC COMEDY. It was the last thing I wanted to see before Valentine's Day, especially a Valentine's Day like this, marked by a falling out with a particular romantic interest. Basically: I was having boy problems. And all I really wanted to was wrap myself in a blanket it my tiny, warm apartment, watch, say, a Will Ferrell movie, and forget that things like romance ever existed. Instead, I had dragged myself out into the cold and the snow for the second time this week in order to put myself directly in the line of fire and watch a happy, fictional, couple have the happy, fictional, ending that I didn't have.

I explain all this to give a little context. I was in a bad mood, I was grumpy, the very idea of the play made me unhappy. I want to put it right on the table that it's possible that my dour mood and general foreswearance of all things romantic colored my interpretation of the show. In fact, between my the state of my own romantic self (V-day, tears, etc.) on the night I happened to see the show and the actual content of the show, it was actually an almost weirdly personal show.

The show is about a particularly pissed-off schoolteacher, who, after a painful break-up with her fiancé, goes on a highly inappropriate rant on deeply chauvinistic symbolism and themes of repressed female sexuality the the story, "The Little Mermaid." She subsequently grows a mermaid tail, embarks on a backwards version of the fairy tale, finds love and self-actualization, et cetera.

Now, not only was I in a mood equally foul as our protagonist at rise, but I, like Miriam, also feel profoundly wronged by the oppressive lessons of The Little Mermaid. I grew up on the story - both the Disney version and the original - and I adored. Then, at some point in my early adulthood, I realized that my childhood obsession with the story had inadvertently shaped all of my expectations about love and romance. And not in a healthy way. And, I think I am not alone. I think there is a whole contingent of little girls who were, say, six years old when Disney's Little Mermaid was released, who feel the same way. I think the playwright is one of these girls.

Furthermore, Miriam, like me, is educated. She is modern. She is liberated. She's innately literary and understands the power of metaphor and symbolism. Just like me. In fact, much of the play is an explicit discussion of metaphor and symbolism, as she struggles to understand what's happened to her in terms of what the transformation represents, symbolically.


But what does she eventually conclude? In a play in which talk rests so heavily on symbolism, metaphor, and theme, there better be a damn good meaning to mine from the piece as a whole. But, to me, the ultimate message was frustratingly mixed. At one point, I thought that the show was to be a gentle prodding of folks like me, who struggle to find symbolic meaning in everything. Miriam is so convinced of the feminist idea her tail represents that she is shocked and horrified when, toward the end of the story, the "symbol" of her tail is interpreted entirely and radically differently.

But this interpretation doesn't entirely hold up when events do finally line up in a symbolically meaningful way to restore her legs at the end of the story. She thinks that not having legs (and thus, no vagina), and symbolically liberating herself from love and sex is a sign of strength. Ultimately, she learns that allowing herself to be vulnerable and conquering her fear of loving is her true strength. It is only when she admits her feelings for Lewis, her best friend, school's principal, and object of romantic tension for the duration of the play, that she regains her legs.

Actually, now that I think about it, it's when she allows herself to dance, and thus experiences the symbolic freedom the dance represents that she regains her legs. And then she gets with Lewis. Because she has symbolically embraced her vulnerability. Or something.

But... seriously? A story that purports to be a feminist deconstruction of an old story (and I do believe it purports to be such. From the very title to our heroine's very sympathetic quest to liberate herself from the shackles of love) ends with a happily ever after? In finding salvation in... love? Ew.

That's a little harsh. And, again, may have more to do with me than the play. I DO get where the story was going. I get that she thinks that the feminist, liberated thing to do is rid herself of romantic attachments. I get the message that we all - men, women, all - are designed to crave love, and that sometimes the strongest thing to do is embrace that, and face the fear of all the risks that accompany it. I get that, I do.

But at the same time, lines like "You put the prince in principal," had me gripped with the desire jump from my seat shouting, "Hey! This is just a fairy tale in sheep's clothing!" You just can't have story that so proudly touts itself as an anti-fairy tale end in such a fairy tale manner. You can't. You can't have a play that centers so heavily on woman's search for independence and self-actualization and then let her be saved by the prince(ipal. har.) That's my story, I'm sticking to it.

I think I would have liked it better if Miriam had really been in love with her erstwhile fiancé. Rather, the play is fraught with references that she wasn't really meant to be with him, that he wasn't really right for her. Indeed, he turns out to be quite the douche. He wasn't her True Love. And, as we've learned from all the Snow Whites and Cinderellas that have gone before, True Love will be her salvation. Thank god (or Hans Christian Anderson, or Disney) that she found Lewis. Lewis, on the other hand, has been coping with the death of his wife, a woman whom he seemed to really love, and is grappling with his ability to move on. The latter story is more interesting to me, and more relevant to the idea that true "liberation" comes in our ability to take risks and put our hearts on the line.

In the midst of my bitter ranting, I should stop to mention that the show was really, really cute. I laughed a lot, even in spite of my mood. The dialogue was funny, smooth, and very well written and the production - especially for the production values available to it - was strong and vibrant. The two lead actors were adorable, and had wonderful chemistry. This girl who played Miriam - where was she six months ago when I was casting for my own show, and desperately needed a beautiful, bubbly Latina actress with great comic timing and just a liiiiittle bit of an edge? Where?

On these strengths alone, it's possible that in a calmer state of mind I would have seen this show and thought nothing more than "AAWWWWW." But, it so happens that I saw it when I did, and interpreted it as I did: A cute, but misguided (possibly offensive?) attempt to bring new perspective to an old story. A swing and a miss.

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