Glass Half Full Theatre's Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse WOW!
This playful eco-fable by Caroline Reck and Indigo Rael creates a surprising plastic paradise under the sea
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., June 1, 2018
She may be the prettiest patchwork of plastic to swim the Seven Seas – a miscellany of colored and patterned bags pleasingly refashioned into a fish tail with bell-bottom fins, tightly twisted dreads in an array of hues, and a tank top sporting a sunny happy face and the phrase "Have a nice day!" You'd be hard pressed to land another sea creature so fetching.
Mind you, she shouldn't be. Plastic in the world's waters is worse than unsightly; it's vile and a grave threat to aquatic life. By all rights, this conglomeration of synthetic refuse ought to be appalling. But in the marine milieu conceived by Glass Half Full Theatre Artistic Director Caroline Reck and Indigo Rael for Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse WOW!, twin currents of good cheer and imagination pull us away from the realities of our world into an oceanic realm that's enchanted, eccentric, and fun, where puns are as plentiful as plankton, where our watery heroine has an appealingly earthy side, where the inanimate plastic castoffs of the surface world come to life as talking cups heartsick for the people who drank out of them, takeout-food clamshells that need their teeth brushed, and clear vinyl umbrellas that pulsate and propel themselves like jellyfish. It's like The Little Mermaid was imagineered not by Disney, but by the Pee-wee's Playhouse gang.
Imbuing these lifeless objects with such vitality is further testament to Reck's masterful understanding of puppetry and the way she and her skilled collaborators apply it in Glass Half Full's projects. Here, Reck's partners in puppeteering are the five ensemble members who comprise the Scubuki, performers swathed in black from head to swim fins, with just their faces exposed through an oval cutout rimmed with light, suggestive of a diving helmet. In addition to supplying the movements and voices of the show's nonhuman characters (among them a mop-bucket pooch that's a hoot), Sarah Danko, Marina DeYoe-Pedraza, Karina Dominguez, Kelly Hasandras, and Gricelda Silva supply more than their share of Polly Mermaid's delights. It's largely thanks to them that you find yourself rooting for the trash and wanting to chant along with them: "We are plastic, and plastic is forever!"
That the oceans' pollutants are sympathetic figures is just one way Reck and Rael flip the script here. They take the old story trope of the "fish out of water" and set it in the water, having a landlubber scientist, Deborah (heavy accent on the second syllable) Déguderè, follow the wormhole opened by her waste-disposal transporter to its endpoint in Polly's plastic paradise on the ocean bed. This starchy brainiac – you can almost see the neurons firing behind Katy Taylor's horn-rimmed spectacles and furrowed brow – is a stranger in a strange sea among Polly's pals. But her exposure to the whimsical creatures down below and growing attachment to the mermaid herself (and given the saucy, buoyant charms of Indigo Rael's Polly, who could blame her?) make Deb-or-ah rethink her out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to beaming our waste away. She returns home via the marine vortex – an underwater outhouse that effectively flushes crap to the surface (a cheeky play on the old saw that "shit doesn't flow uphill") – though a colleague's unscrupulous betrayal of the scientist forces her to send Polly an SOS (by a flushed candy wrapper). So in the end it's plastic to the rescue.
In this topsy-turvy world, Reck and Rael lead us to ponder how we live and who we love and what we should save. Theirs is no tidy eco-fable, all black on one side and green on the other; it mixes its colors, upending some expectations and teasing others. But its playfulness in doing so and the magic of its setting – conjured by Rachel Atkinson's lights, Amy Waller's costumes, K. Eliot Haynes' sound, and a bubbly score by Mother Falcon, as well as Rael and Reck's puppets and scenery – make it worth a deep dive down to.
Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow!The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through June 9
Running time: 1 hr.