by Edward Elefterion · August 13, 2014
“Two marine biologists are at odds during the most important expedition of their career. When a stranded shark refuses to die, things get weird in this physical theatre piece about the nature of ego, love and revenge.” (This is from the press materials, too…) “Loosely Inspired by John Steinbeck’s real life recording of such a mission in The Log of the Sea of Cortez, Milkwood Theater uses the book’s philosophical musings to build an off-kilter physical theatre piece, equal parts absurd humor and inventive storytelling.”
Sounds interesting, right? It did to me. It still does. But I saw it and I can tell you – it just doesn’t deliver. I kept asking myself, “Who cares?” as the actors “danced” their way through a movement series riffing off the idea of gathering sea urchins, argued their way through a relationship that was over before it had a chance to fail, and waxed un-poetic about ways to prepare roosterfish.
I’m sorry to write about it like this because I’ve been on the sharp end of a bad review and I know how it feels. The truth is that this show is underdeveloped and shouldn’t be subjected to a review of any kind. But the Milkwood Theater and FringeNYC put it out there and, for better or worse, I’m the guy doing the typing. So in an effort to make lemonade, I’m taking this opportunity to engage with the young artists of the Milkwood Theater, who created Cortez. I hope it will be received as I intend it: in the spirit of growth and progress.
To the Members of the Milkwood Theater: Don’t confuse your enjoyment with ours. It seems like you’re having a good time up there, but your audience (except for those two howling behind me who obviously knew one or all of you, or was trying to nudge the indifferent audience towards enjoyment) – except for them, we did not connect with you. But that’s not our job. It’s yours. And the cards are stacked in your favor: we’re rooting for you, that’s why we came, we’re already interested. It’s a letdown when the artists do their own thing, creating meaning inside of a private context that we on the outside just cannot know or guess. For example, my plus-one and I had no idea you were on a boat – until you told us you were, and that was maybe three-quarters of the way through the show. Some props are real and some are mimed without a reason, why? Why does David love Heather? Does it mean anything to lose her? Maybe I didn’t care because he didn’t? And why on earth does she love him? I kept wondering what she was even doing with him. What do the two sailors add to the central relationship? How do they contribute to the experience? Right now, they feel like an adjacent idea, characters from another play who got hauled into this one for comic relief. Only there’s no tension to relieve and so their comedy turns into banality because it serves no purpose. Develop your material; dig in deeper, rehearsal isn’t about creating bits and pieces as much as it’s about shaping them, cutting, solving problems.
To David Riley, the director and lead: I don’t think it helps that you wear two hats. Perhaps if you were sitting on the outside you’d see how unclear things are and create ways to help?
I sincerely hope this “review” helps. It’s something that should have happened at a much earlier phase, in the privacy of the rehearsal hall, and not from a stranger but from trusted colleagues and mentors. Solicit one or two of them, those who you truly trust to tell you the truth, get them to see Cortez, then sit and listen to them. If they tell you I’m full of it, that’s fine. I probably am. But can it hurt? However, if they tell you how great it was, stop listening to them. They’re invested in you more personally than artistically. Find someone else to listen to. Someone who cares about your growth. Enjoy your run at FringeNYC, it’s an opportunity to have your work seen by strangers and to learn from it. Best of luck with your future work.