Theatre Review: ‘Dolphins and Sharks’ at Bank Street Theatre

Chinaza Uche, Flor De Liz Perez, Pernell Walker, Tina Fabrique, Cesar J. Rosado. Photo credit: Monique Carboni

Labyrinth Theatre Company presents the world premiere of James Anthony Tyler’s “Dolphins and Sharks,” and it is going to be my best show of 2017. I cannot imagine how another show is going to be able to top the experience for me. I’ve had a run of exceedingly good fortune at the theatre recently, but this seminal work blew me right out of my skin.

. . .it’s a brilliant, brilliant text.

Playwright James Anthony Tyler has taken the temperature of the feverish “now” and delivered a diagnosis that is chilling and uncompromising. He is our wise oracle that is not going to let us pass by that easily. He asks us to look closely and really see the mess we are swimming in. It’s extremely funny, but every bit of laughter tears open a hole for the hell to come in.

I can’t say that I entered the theatre because, in fact, I walked into the Harlem Office of a printing, copy, postal service style business that was once the Bank Street Theatre. You literally walk past copy machines, stationary shelves, postal packaging – scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg has created an authentic 21st century work space in all of this mundane functionality.

It’s quite brilliant and you are placed right into the heart of working class America. Her attention to detail in the set is beyond satisfying. I particularly loved the pencil sharpener that became a metaphor for futility. The active computer screens, copiers, CCTV images, and television screens were used to maximum, exhilarating efficacy. I was immediately immersed in this world and open to receive.

We’re about to meet our office workers, the modern-day chain gang, prisoners of poverty, desperate to eek out a living at any cost. There is Isabel Peters (Pernell Walker), who has been working there the longest – six years of service slavery. Then there is the ambitious Xiomara Yepez (Flor De Liz Perez), who will soon be ascending to the ranks of management, the new hire NYU college graduate – Yusuf Nwachukwu (Chinaza Uche) – and the night janitor – Danilo Martinez (Cesar J. Rosado).

We also have a regular customer – Amenze Amen (Tina Fabrique) – who brings Harlem legacy in with her and a fighting spirit. There are two other powerful characters in the story – Mr. Timmons, the shop owner that we never see, but whose actions keep the group seasick from his bad navigation skills, and the technology “presence” that dominates and unsettles the environment (it’s taking over, taking jobs).

We are going to be witness to the effects of capitalism, gentrification, and the age of automation. We see our working class heroes going round and round in the fishbowl, trying to expand their horizons, but knocking against the class – or should I say glass. Each of these characters are about to confront their biggest fears, and instead of being able to take on the real “shark” in their vicinity, they turn on each other, making themselves chump fodder for their prey. This Harlem office becomes the global microcosm of unfairness. A great work ethic, always being on time, and working extra hard is not going to make you rise.

Tyler has created distinct characters with their own particular speech patterns, idioms, and cultural references. He has written powerful female characters that display levels of complexity that go way beyond the normal stereotypes. The dialogue is a dance of scintillating syncopation as each character busts a series of word moves that spin your head in adulation. It’s a brilliant, brilliant text.

I am totally in awe of director Charlotte Brathwaite. Her precise vision was evident in every detail of the staging and the emotional through lines of each dismantling character. You feel her as a force powering this mighty ship. You feel her at the helm of every beautifully crafted moment. You feel her strong hand in the seamless flow of the complicated technical aspects of the show integrated with the emotional landscape of the characters. I thought her highly detailed work in each of the scenes links to be works of art in their own right. She brought the subtext to the surface so it could take a gulp of fresh air.Advertisement

All of the performers bring every ounce of their energy, focus, and commitment to telling this necessary story. They vibrate with intensity because they know they are telling a definitive story of our times and they take responsibility for sharing it with passion. They carry their part in it with reverence and respect. It’s a tight ensemble who share the stage generously.

Pernell Walker as Isabel is hilarious and heartbreaking and defiant and desperate, all rolled into one. The story pivots around her and she commands our attention with her flawless performance and impressive emotional range.

Flor De Liz Perez as Xiomara was formidable as the tragic antagonist who is unable to control how power unseats her sense of self. Perez, as the manager, was brilliantly brutal but with a tiny, broken heart, unable to be true to her own needs and those of the ones she loves. She is a versatile actress able to play the seductive, the power hungry, the broken child, the shunned lover, the confidante, and the manipulator with skill and honesty.

Chinaza Uche as Yusuf has a powerful, commanding presence. He is a force that burst onto the stage with unstoppable energy and huge charisma. These three central characters formed a magnificent trio that drove the fast pace of this production with the dexterity of rodeo riders.

Cesar J. Rosado as Danilo was great at driving the plot line forward and brought the “community” into the work space. He epitomized the tight bonds between families in the neighborhood beautifully. Rosado gave us a nurturing father as well as a volatile opponent when under pressure. He is a talented actor able to play support with sensitivity.

Tina Fabrique as Amenze brought her sensational singing voice into the links and spoke directly into our souls. She was warm and wonderful as the elderly customer who is still “learning” but never forgetting. Amenze is always reminding the office workers of the slow destruction of their cultural legacy in Harlem. Fabrique brought a quiet, fiery revolutionary spirit into the shop. She anchored the piece with her strength and stature, challenging us to stand up and do something about our dismal situations.

Andrew Schneider’s video design was absolutely astounding. The images on the various screens during the scenes and links were inspired. I couldn’t believe the amount of pure magic he created with his palette of screen surfaces. They were telling a phenomenal story of our times, as well, and complimented the action superbly.

Justin Hicks created the sound design and original music for the production, which was the right mix of jarring and heartbreaking. It must have been an epic task to find the perfect music for this show, and he has excelled with his compositions that signal the soundtrack of our dissonant lives.

Properties master Addison Heeren has a great eye for detail and filled the store with amazing prop “gifts” for the actors to play with on stage. I particularly loved the addition of the “management for Dummies” book read by Xiamara in one of the links.

Zulema Griffins costume design portrayed each characters’ essence and function perfectly. We knew these people immediately, their status and self-belief worn on their bodies with Griffin’s astute use of style. Kent Barret’s powerful lighting design gave us both the naturalistic world in all of its stark “white” reality, as well as the absurd, colorful, mangled nightmare link dynamic. He captured the conscious and subconscious worlds of the play magnificently.

Amenze has the last words of the play: “So, we’re just going to sit back and accept this?” She asks the question over and over again. You want to stand up and shout loudly, “No, no, no!” There is revolution sewn into the fabric of the text that gets unleashed in the listener. This play is a working class anthem that needs to be sung everywhere.

Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission.