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Troubled Waters

Theater Review: Seascape With Sharks and Dancer

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A young woman, bundled in a blanket and with a towel wrapped around her head, sleeps on a couch in a cramped room. She stirs to give her limbs a catlike stretch and, sitting upright with a start, takes in her surroundings. We can tell by the look on her face that it's not her place. We also get a very strong sense that the circumstances by which she came to sleep there are foggy.

That matter is cleared up soon enough: Ben, the guy who lives there, fished her, Tracy, out of the ocean, presumably rescuing her from suicide. (She claims she had merely been "dancing" in the sea.) Why Tracy remains -- and why neither she nor Ben are willing to let one another go -- are questions that propel the Vermont Theatre Ensemble's current production of Seascape With Sharks and Dancer, written by playwright Don Nigro.

Moviegoers of a certain generation may remember that James Stewart's character in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo nearly lost his mind after rescuing a comely Kim Novak from San Francisco Bay. The rewards for impromptu lifeguard bravery improved greatly for Tom Hanks some years later when, in the unflinchingly silly 1984 film Splash, his character becomes the terrestrial caretaker of a mermaid with borderline nymphomania, played by Daryl Hannah.

In the grand tradition of serious theater, Ben's reward for saving Tracy's life in Seascape is more complicated, more nuanced. He suffers neither the mental breakdown of Stewart's character nor enjoys Hanks' character's incredibly good luck. Instead, he gets an earful of ingratitude, insults and accusations. What Ben gives Tracy in return is a cup of hot chocolate, a ham sandwich and an invitation to stay. Most real-life relationships take a little time to descend into dysfunction. This one does a swan dive at the top of Act 1, Scene 1.

Right away, we know this couple is headed for trouble, and the source of the friction is Tracy, played by Rachel Dorfman. Nigro has created a captivating character here, a woman whose lifetime of abuse and rejection has crystallized into such searing self-loathing that she has only contempt for any man who would not have taken advantage of her in her vulnerable, naked state. But this is all subtext; that is, what Tracy says to Ben clearly masks the painful truth of what she's feeling.

On the surface, Nigro has presented a woman who, rather than expressing gratitude to the man who appears to have saved her life, becomes more demanding the more he caters to her. In brief glimpses into Tracy's past, we come to understand that her childhood taught her some hard lessons -- chief among them, not to get too attached to people. This seems to be her motivation for slamming Ben at every opportunity.

In playing Tracy, Dorfman makes some strong choices, though not all of them strengthen her overall performance. To say she is feisty is like saying a jellyfish has a funny texture. Keeping her voice at a moderate volume, she snaps at Ben like a soggy beach towel, nipping in the bud any gesture of kindness. The speed and iciness of Tracy's responses suggest the deep conditioning -- and deep, deep wounds -- from which her testiness derives. To her credit, Dorfman occasionally manages to play this uber-bitchiness to comic effect. As she ignores one opportunity after another to show a little humanity toward Ben, one wonders just how far she can go in this mode.

Over the length of the play, the effect becomes a bit exhausting, and this is where Dorfman loses steam despite all she gives off. To anticipate that these odd strangers will become an odd couple -- and that sense pervades the play from the outset, so this disclosure gives away no plot secrets -- one might expect to see more of the wounded individual behind the tough shell than Dorfman reveals.

In fairness to the actor, Nigro has drawn her character in such a way that she rarely opens herself up to Ben. In fact, most of the important background information Tracy and Ben share with one another comes across in quasi-fictional stories that Tracy insists they tell. Still, while Dorfman's eyes dart off to the side, avoiding direct contact with Ben or the audience, we hunger for a look that might suggest some of her emotional ice is melting.

As Ben, John Carlos Pepe also assumes a formidable challenge. Why would anyone put up with such ill treatment? When Tracy joins him in his bed, we begin to understand. But this play seems to be about relationships, not just sex, and Pepe doesn't fully mine that side of the dynamic. He's a convincing librarian who, in his free time, is writing the Great American Novel (or not). That he keeps the manuscript in the refrigerator, hidden from burglars and safe from fire, lends a quirky dash to his character. Pepe moves well on stage and delivers lines with easy, naturalistic style.

Perhaps because Tracy's past has been more dramatic than Ben's, Dorfman's issues echo loudly in her lines. What does not come across as clearly in Pepe's turn is why Ben is drawn to Tracy -- and holds on more tightly the harder she pushes him away. One might expect a cloistered librarian pecking away at an old typewriter in a ratty beachside cottage to welcome a little company. But that universal human need for connection doesn't bubble to the surface often enough in Pepe's performance.

While the method to the madness is not always apparent in this play, a crackling dramatic tension is palpable and inescapable at every moment. Director Michael Jordan Evans has demonstrated skill at getting his players to maintain a brisk pace. As with his staging of David Mamet's American Buffalo earlier this season, he wrings maximum drama from Nigro's rapid-fire dialogue and from deft blocking that keeps his actors in close physical contact. In both American Buffalo and Seascape, the result is almost relentless conflict.

In this production, that ends up being the play's greatest achievement but, occasionally, its chief liability as well. Were Dorfman's Tracy to take a breath from time to time and reveal a more profound glimpse of vulnerability, and were Pepe's Ben to show a bit more backbone, one might see more convincingly what connects these two individuals.

This production of Seascape With Sharks and Dancer lacks the emotional ebb and flow one might expect from a story of two complete strangers falling in love, but the dance they do in Ben's hovel never fails to compel interest. One cannot overestimate the challenge that the play itself presents: Two characters. Two acts. One room. Add emotional and psychological baggage and stir.

As the title suggests, these are dangerous waters in which to swim, and this director and cast deserve credit for venturing into the deep end.

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