Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati uses the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival as a platform to showcase its intern company, young professionals who spend most of the preceding season behind the scenes, understudying professional actors and supporting backstage operations. The 2013 Fringe has provided a final showcase for a half-dozen talented performers to shine in their own light in a production of Adam Bock’s absurdist comedy, Swimming in the Shallows.
ETC fully supports the show, so every year the intern show’s production go well beyond what you’ll see at other Fringe venues. ETC’s resident designers, Brian c. Mehring (set) and Matthew Holstegge (lighting), have created a professionally designed and complexly lit set — albeit an evolved version of the slick platform and illuminate walls that served the recently production of The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns. The show also features sound design (by John Diehl) and video utilizing ETC’s technical facilities.
Bock’s script is not as out there as most of the material at the Fringe, it is nevertheless one that features plenty of oddball characters, cockeyed situations and verbal humor. When it premiered in 2005, the New York Times called Swimming in the Shallows “a screwy little jewel,” and it fits perfectly within the context of “weird” that the Fringe claims as its own.
The show offers three stories about friends living in Rhode Island whose lives intertwine around the pursuit and sustenance of love and romance.
Donna (Paloma White) and Carla Carla (Tess Talbot), a lesbian pair, are running hot and cold while making plans for a commitment ceremony. The middle-aged marriage of Barb (Anne Dufault) and Bob (a cross-dressed performance by Sarah White) is running on empty. And Nick (Nick Tsangaris), who is gay, falls in love with someone new almost daily. Donna works at an aquarium; and in the show’s funniest twist, Nick has developed a crush on a shark (played by Leah Baker, with cocky attitude, a glistening silver jumpsuit and a headpiece that reminds us of her sharklike nature).
These are talented actors, although the show’s roles intended for males make this production a bit complicated. Tsangaris is perfect as non-stop talker Nick, yearning for more a profound relationship and mystified about finding one. Baker’s shark, while very funny, is obviously female in a way that playwright Bock did not intend. That yields some dissonance: Nick’s attraction to the shark is not about changing his sexual orientation but about the risky dangers of any relationship. Baker’s early scenes have her crisscrossing an imagined tank saying, “Swim, swim, swim” and occasionally bumping into the glass. But when Nick gets more profoundly acquainted with her character (after a funny, erotic dream with a crazy soundtrack), she has an insightful monologue about “swimming in the shallows,” focusing on the tenure and potential loneliness of love.
Those remarks are revelatory regarding the show’s other relationships. Paloma White and Talbot milk lots of laughs out of their mutual angst and indecision regarding their relationship. Dufault is excellent as the earnest but befuddled Barb, eager to simplify her life by divesting “stuff,” while Bob (who’s occasionally present but more often spoken of) keeps buying things. Sarah White has a limited opportunities to state Bob’s case and his hopes that Barb will return. Their scenes are as much about the humor of Bob and Barb arguing in their Rhode Island accents, which make their names all but interchangeable.
In fact, the other delightful aspect of Swimming in the Shallows is Bock’s rapid-fire dialogue, naturally conversational on the one hand yet wonderfully complex on the other. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the writer’s hand riffing on the regional “Haavad Yaad” accents with numerous words that that broaden the “ar” sound. The actors’ polished delivery of these verbal tics adds to the show’s hilarity.
The show’s amusement factor is surely attributable to director Michael G. Bath, best known locally as a skillful actor. When he’s onstage in a comedy, you can be assured that zany moments will ensue, and his skill with such material has surely been transmitted to these young performers. That’s as it should be, since Bath interned at ETC in 1990-1991.
SWIMMING IN THE SHALLOWS has a limited run of four performances. It opened on Thursday and closes on Saturday, with performances at 3:45 and 8:15 p.m.