Whale Song or: Learning to Live With Mobyphobia
nytheatre.com review by Ryan Emmons
August 18, 2011
Whale Song or: Learning to Live with Mobyphobia is a moving and artful look at coping with the loss of a loved one. The play begins after Maya Swan, a pre-school teacher, has just lost her father due to a bizarre incident regarding the whale tank at Sea World. Upon her return to NYC, the media is buzzing about a whale that has been sighted in the Hudson River and Maya becomes convinced that this whale has come to deliver a message to her from her dead father. The play is as darkly comic as the plot suggests and the cast presents the bizarre circumstances of the play in an understated way that makes them believable and touching.
The ensemble of actors is strong and creates characters that are quirky and heartfelt. Ryan Feyk plays Mark, Maya's boyfriend who is clearly on the way out. Feyk does an excellent job in creating a man who is clearly perfect for Maya even though all she wants to do is push him away. Siri Hellerman plays Maya's sister and is reminiscent of the sister in Proof, sensible and straightforward. Shep, who frequently refers to himself as "the mother F'ing Drummer," is played by Jordan Douglas Smith in a goofy Williamsburg-y way that suits the character perfectly, and Hollis Witherspoon plays Maya in a neurotic but never over-the-top way, that never allowed me to dismiss her as simply crazy. Rosie Sowa and Gavin Starr Kendall round out the cast as a reporter and Maya's dead father, James. The two help establish the tone of the play and serve as markers of how deep into Maya's neurosis we have gone.
The directing of this play by Brad Raimondo is truly beautiful and pointed. Whale Song or: Learning to Live with Mobyphobia is the perfect meeting of script (by Claire Kiechel) and direction. The play is written with complex characters and a tone that is funny and sad all at once—Raimondo navigates his way through the play with clarity and is able to highlight the changes that are going on in Maya's mind in the external world using boxes that begin to clutter her apartment. Raimondo consistently uses simple objects and staging to create scenarios that many directors would think they needed a higher budget to create.
I do not think I agree with everything that the play is saying about loss and the human condition, but it inspires dialogue about something that people generally do not talk about and it does so in a gorgeous way. The moments Maya speaks to her class are the only moments that I never quite believed (perhaps because I have spent quite a bit of time in a preschool setting). The classroom moments always felt transitionary and forced, but I imagine in the next rendition of this play, with more time, that would be easily adjusted. Whale Song or: Learning to Live with Mobyphobia is an extremely well written, directed and acted play that people should go see now while it is only the price of a FringeNYC ticket!