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Kathleen Akerley has a yen for directing problem plays. Early last year, she took on Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon for American Century Theater because she relished the challenge of its fundamentally hoary premise: “artist crushed by harridan,” as she wrote in the show’s program. More recently, she directed Budd Schulberg’s reworked-for-the-stage On the Waterfront and Sam Shepard’s nigh-impenetrable, Ziggy Stardust-era sci-fi meditation on celebrity, The Tooth of Crime.
Her latest, Goldfish Thinking, is a world premiere she wrote for her own company, Longacre Lea. It’s possible she’s invented a new genre here—I’ll call it psychocomedy—but she also hasn’t made her job as director any easier. It’s kind of a mess, but I enjoyed it more than any of Akerley’s other recent productions, mostly on account of the good, funny work by its 10-member cast.
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A game Heather Haney plays Dana, a Georgetown Law student who begins to say things she doesn’t remember a second later, then suffers elaborate hallucinations in class. Her study buddies, Ashley DeMain, Michael Glenn, and William Hayes, are initially amused by her odd behavior, but when it persists some of their friendships become strained. Inside her delusion, Dana is accused of killing a man—one who, even as a corpse, refuses to shut up and lie still; he even offers her advice when she’s representing herself in dream court. A Kalashnikov-carrying Chairman Mao (Chris Davenport) makes frequent appearances, along with Dana’s very supercilious law professor (Jesse Terrill), who seems to be the more menacing of the pair. So you can hardly blame her for seeking the counsel of a therapist, as well as of various seers and psychics, though I can’t think of a single story wherein that has ever worked.
Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s set looks like something a kid would build out of blocks, where the blocks are oversized law books and tomes of bedtime stories. The environment works well for both the scenes set in the law library as well as inside Dana’s dreamscape—sorry, I mean “parasitic reality”—where we spend an increasing chunk of our time in the protracted second act, as the narrative drifts out of focus even as the comic performances stay sharp.
Not just the comic performances, either. Anna Brungardt executes some creepy-crawly choreography while spider-walking through one of Dana’s nightmares, and a freshly bagged body pogos its way onstage. Moments like these suggest this show is best appreciated as a series of horror-comedy vignettes. It’s discursive but intermittently compelling; it’s vivid in its telling but fades quickly once it’s over. Days later, I’m not sure what, if anything, any of it means. In other words, it’s the stuff of dreams.