Jeune Lune’s ‘Fishtank’—A Conversation

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TC Daily Planet arts writers Jay Gabler and Anne Nicolai both attended the opening night performance of Fishtank, the new play at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Afterward, they had the following exchange about the Minneapolis company’s unique production.

Fishtank plays through March 22 at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 105 N. 1st Street, Minneapolis. For tickets ($20-$30), see jeunelune.org.


Jay Gabler: Anne, I enjoyed your review of Fishtank—but I didn’t enjoy the play as much as you did. I have to applaud the ambition of Dominique Serrand and his creative team in producing such an adventurous show, but without a narrative structure to hold the varied bits together, I honestly became bored. It seems that the show kept you entertained, though, despite its lack of a conventional story.

Anne Nicolai: My group had mixed opinions. I tend to enjoy anything offbeat, so I was primed to shrug off anything I didn’t like or didn’t understand. I would agree that the second half of the show lagged a bit; one companion of mine said her leg fell asleep, and that was all she could think about for the last 30 minutes or so. I viewed Fishtank as similar to the 24-Hour Play Project done annually by Theatre Unbound, in which actors and directors are given one line of script, a feeling, and an object, which they must incorporate into each of six one-act plays that are written, rehearsed, and performed within 24 hours. It becomes less a play and more a piece of performance art.

JG: Yes, I agree with the performance art analogy—and I even wondered if making the show something of an endurance test wasn’t part of the point, as with an Andy Warhol film. I think the show was meant to be more engaging than I found it, though, and I think in the end it served as an illustration that the kind of absurd physical humor and wordplay we saw onstage work best when the audience has sympathetic characters with definite motivations to identify with. The show was billed as an homage to Charlie Chaplin, but the humor of Chaplin’s Little Tramp is that he encounters outlandish situations while acting on universal human impulses. We get a taste of that in Fishtank (as with the “lost wallet” episode), but by the time the characters started building that random wall you mention in your review, I’d lost all interest.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Anne Nicolai on Fishtank and Jay Gabler on Jeune Lune’s The Deception (2007).

AN: I actually did find the show engaging in the same way that I find a kaleidoscope engaging. But then, I’m a bit of an oddball. Sometimes I’ll turn off the sound and just watch TV commercials to see how well they communicate through symbolism, pacing, color, gestures, etc. In my review of Fishtank, I likened the work to a dance. I didn’t expect a story line, and I didn’t need it to make sense. Still, I found it much more relevant than so much of the stuff people are willing to sit through on TV and at the movies. And I’m rather partial to dreamstate analogies anyway. When they started building the wall of bricks—taking each brick from the inside to the outside of a cave, each time discovering one more layer underneath—I thought of two universal human experiences: work life, in which we sometimes build an elaborate program only to dismantle it and build the same thing later, under a new name, when a new manager or consultant comes in (strategy du jour); and grief over something (or someone) we’ve lost, which can drive us toward industriousness for its own sake. In both situations, there is tension, disappointment, frustration, even desperation. I felt that. Do you think our difference of opinion stems from our being at opposite ends of the analytical spectrum, or is it purely a case of one man’s trash, another man’s treasure?

JG: I think it’s some of both. To me, there was an artificial quality to the show that made the humor seem strained and the characters difficult to identify with. Kafka’s novels are also statements on the frustration and futility of modern life, and of course as works of fiction they’re equally artificial, but Josef K. is accessible and believable in a way that the characters in Fishtank aren’t. I wonder whether it was a very deliberate choice for Serrand to cast himself—emphasizing the precise design behind all the seemingly spontaneous hi-jinks—or whether he joined the cast on a whim. Did the fact that the creative mastermind was himself onstage influence the way you thought about the show?

AN: I just figure it’s a Woody Allen thing. Some writers and directors also want to be actors, so they cast themselves. I think Serrand and his compatriots would be flattered that you have compared them to Kafka, however unfavorably! I agree with you on that score, by the way—believability, I mean. I first read Kafka’s Metamorphosis 28 years ago and can still conjure up shivers when I think about it. I doubt I’ll carry any such residual emotion in connection with Fishtank. However, I just didn’t find it that hard to suspend disbelief. In fact, I found Coco’s character endearing—probably because of her moodiness, and the little “yup” that punctuated her pronouncements (although in real life, that would drive me nuts after a while)—and I viewed the three male characters as kinetic sculptures more than as characters. Perhaps that means I ought to see a therapist. Or get a boyfriend. But I think it comes down to expectations. This is a show in which one of the “characters,” if you will, is a bowling ball that comes rolling when summoned. Plastic flowers move mechanically inside a pretend aquarium, like in the Small World exhibit at Epcot. A vending machine becomes a portal to and from the outside world, then goes back to dispensing a beverage. I think we may be over-thinking this whole thing. On the other hand, I hope Serrand and company aren’t going to come after me with bricks. This is their art. I’m not saying it was trite. On the contrary, I saw themes emerging, if not individual personalities. You may have a better sense of what it was supposed to be, and I’ll defer to you on that. For what it was, I feel it’s worth the time and ticket.

Jay Gabler writes on the arts. He is assistant editor of the TC Daily Planet.

Anne Nicolai (askanne@nadfm.com) lives, works, plays, and blogs about arts and culture in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Visit nadfm.com.