by SOPHIE KERMAN
After wowing Minnesota Fringe Festival audiences for the past two years running, Isabel Nelson has brought 2010 Fringe Festival Favorite Ballad of the Pale Fisherman to the Illusion Theater mainstage. After being blown away by Red Resurrected at the 2011 Fringe, I was excited to see the expansion of Pale Fisherman, the show that put Nelson’s ensemble on the Twin Cities radar. This production, which develops and deepens the original one-hour Fringe version, offers something that few other local theater companies dare to put on stage: no-frills storytelling that relies purely on the skill of the company’s actors to create a visible world on an empty stage.
The ensemble performs marvelously, drawing us into the world of their remote fishing village with no help from a set or a sound designer. The lives of the characters in Pale Fisherman are marked by the rhythm of daily routine, and the performers – using no more than an accordion and their own voices – illustrate that rhythm by creating a sonic landscape that brings to life the steady crash of waves on the beach, the ring of a church bell, and the creak of a rusty front door.
In Pale Fisherman, narrator Derek Lee Miller tells us the story of a fisherman (Diogo Lopes) who falls in love with a selkie (Anna Reichert), a seal-woman who cannot return to the water without her missing seal skin. It is a credit to both Lopes and Reichert that, though the dialogue is relatively sparse, their physical and facial expressions tell us all we need to know about both their characters’ isolation and their deep desire for companionship.
Though Pale Fisherman touches on some heavy issues, the varied pace of the action ensures that the play won’t get you down. A trio of old women (Heather Bunch, Adelin Phelps and Allison Witham) contributes a welcome string of comic relief, and the early scenes between Peter and a friend (Willie Gambucci) encapsulate adolescent friendship with some truly well-chosen moments. Thanks to the company’s distinct physical choreography, you might just forget that there is no set or props and start seeing the washboards and fishing nets that determine the characters’ lives.
Isabel Nelson’s ensemble has created the kind of theater that cuts out the distractions, focusing instead on the ability of human beings to create another world through movement, sound, and speech. But while the story they tell may seem like mere folklore on the surface, it isn’t really about the results of cross-species love. In Peter and Anna’s struggles to determine what sacrifices they are willing to make for each other, we see the give-and-take of any human relationship. Leaving the theater, you may find yourself contemplating the lines between desire, selfishness and self-preservation – lines which, through its vivid and nonjudgmental storytelling style, the company has left hauntingly ambiguous.
BALLAD OF THE PALE FISHERMAN, Conceived and directed by Isabel K. Nelson. February 10-25, 2012 (preview February 9). Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave., 8th Floor, Minneapolis. Tickets: $15-20. Box office: 612-339-4944 or www.illusiontheater.org.