Many audience members at the packed Mixed Blood Theatre for Wednesday night’s performance of Ballad of the Pale Fisherman were holdovers from the preceding performance of See You Next Tuesday, a very funny show that had everyone cued for laughter. That left me in the odd position of wishing that people would stop laughing, even though the laughs were appropriate to moments of levity in Pale Fisherman. The show casts such a spell that you want to be alone with it, to curl up in a corner with it like a really good book.
Ballad of the Pale Fisherman is a little miracle of a show, telling an odd but simple story with impressive suppleness and remarkable economy. There are no props; the costumes are simple dresses, shirts, and pants; and the soundtrack, an integral part of the experience, is provided entirely by one accordion and the voices of the cast. The show is the theatrical equivalent of a great singer with an acoustic guitar: she doesn’t need to cue a band, she just turns on and all of a sudden the audience is enraptured.
The story, based on the northern European legend of the selkie—a seal who can turn into a woman—is likely to be unfamiliar to most viewers, and sounds pretty weird on paper, but writer/director Isabel K. Nelson tells it simply, with a storyteller’s flair for gentle humor and well-placed pauses. There’s a moment where the selkie’s human lover (Diogo Lopes) pauses over the sleeping baby born of his marriage to the selkie (Anna Reichert), and right there in the middle of the Fringe’s summertime hustle, the entire world seems to stand still.
Every member of the small ensemble, most of whom play multiple roles, finds the right tone. Storyteller/accordionist Derek Lee Miller intones the tale like one told many times before—as, indeed, it has been—and the supremely sympathetic Lopes makes you believe that the selkie is the love of his life. (In real life, he’s married to Nelson.) As the selkie herself, Anna Reichert—luminous in Cromulent Shakepeare’s Troilus and Cressida—carries the show with grace, modesty, and gravity.
Halfway through the Fringe, Ballad of the Pale Fisherman is looking like one of the festival’s sleeper hits, buoyed—so to speak—by strong word of mouth. (“All great shows tonight,” prominent theater blogger Joshua Humphrey tweeted after the performance, “but Ballad of the Pale Fisherman blew them all away.”) If we’re lucky, Nelson will stick around the Twin Cities for a long time, creating a lot more shows. Some will be great, some will be not so great, but if you find yourself at any one of them, someone is apt to turn to you and ask, “Did you see Ballad of the Pale Fisherman? Wow.” You’ll want to be able to answer yes.
Photo: Isabel Nelson and friend, courtesy Minnesota Fringe Festival