Plenty of plays start with a protagonist questioning their place in the world. Some of them express that questioning through song. Only one — unless I’ve missed out on a very specific subgenre — has that song sung by a chorus of brine shrimp puppets.
Singing to the Brine Shrimp
Plan-B Theatre Company
Feb. 13-23, with a preview on Feb. 12
Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets and info here.
These surprisingly cute creatures show up periodically in Jennifer Kokai’s new play Singing to the Brine Shrimp as a distinctly Utah chorus of consciousness. Their proclamations are not always helpful — they are just microscopic crustaceans after all — but for audiences, they provide a useful peek into an artist at a personal and professional crossroads.
Utah mom Allison (Latoya Cameron) thinks she has finally gotten her big break. In a burst of brine shrimp-fueled inspiration, she writes a play that gets accepted for a prestigious workshop in New York. Her trip, however, is hardly a dream come true. Allison is constantly anxious about measuring up to the other playwrights, who are all about a decade younger, with fancy degrees and Brooklyn cool-kid-cred to spare. The actors and director assigned to her script are fifty shades of self-absorbed. And to make matters worse, everyone keeps asking about Utah with a condescension that makes her feel like something between a cult victim and an orphaned alien.
Besides Allison, all of the other characters, played by actors Lily Hye Soo Dixon, Jay Perry and Emilie Starr, are a mix of puppets and humans. (Singing to the Brine Shrimp is a co-production with Puppets in the City, a local non-profit performing and teaching company.) To the actors’ credit, the puppet and human characters fit together naturally, and each new caricature is crisp, distinct and, most importantly, funny. Just because there are puppets doesn’t mean this show is meant for children — though, thankfully, the show also doesn’t milk cheap humor from puppets saying dirty things just for the hell of it.
Behind-the-scenes-drama may be typical subject matter for playwrights, but Kokai’s writing feels grounded in specific experiences, and this production’s aesthetic choices stand out. The sea-blue scenic design from Madeline Ashton enlivens Plan-B’s small space at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, and the catchy songs by composer Kenneth Plain are a welcome addition. Singing to the Brine Shrimp is just the right kind of quirky, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen something genuinely weird and whimsical onstage.
This short and mostly sweet Singing to the Brine Shrimp doesn’t crack 90 minutes, and that’s probably the right choice — the play is funniest in the first half, when the novelty is still fresh. Kokai doesn’t reach any grand conclusions, and the ending here is perhaps a notch too low-key. Still, it was nice to see a play that was both inventive and light on its feet — all in all, it felt like a breath of fresh air. Of course, the air in Salt Lake smells like salt water and car exhaust, but as Singing to the Brine Shrimp points out, the New York air is hardly any sweeter.
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