With its large cast, meandering plot, amalgamation of performance styles, and musical numbers accompanied by piano and guitar, Me, Kirk Wood Bromley’s new play at the SoHo Tank, often feels campy – summer campy. It’s a play that would work well at an outdoor ampetheater on a woodsy campus. Under the direction of Alec Duffy, Me is the kind of charmingly weird production that parents would come to see their children in because, well, they pretty much have to. Or do they? Parent-child relationships are at the heart of the production, which press materials call “a theatrical mediation on self-identity,” though it might be more apt (though just as awkward) to describe it as a meditation on the self-conception of conception. And birth. And childrearing. A lot of imaginative thought and diligent research has gone into this ambitious project – dramaturg Joe Pindelski’s program notes on theories of pregnancy and placenta provide particularly useful contextualization – but unfortunately, when rendered onstage, those ideas are seldom cogent.
The production opens to the thirteen-member cast entering the stage dressed as a sort of museum guide team, with small name tags pinned to each of their blazers. Whatever is printed on the nametags is too tiny to read, but that may be the point: in this moment, they all play Me. “The Earth is my Womb” they sing, as they enter the space carrying small black flashlights. The twin themes of environmentalism and gestation form two major components of the play: a series of poetic, post-modern pontifications on the self, and an adaptation of the Chinese Yangtze River Dolphin story, which tells of a mythological woman drowned by her father.
As the white dolphin Baije, Sarah Melinda Engelke brings confident enthusiasm and a clear sense of purpose to what could be a confusing role. Although, for purposes of the story, her identity is not always clear, Engelke lends Baije an otherworldly sparkle that alerts audiences to the character’s power. Her scenes with Drew Cortese and Brenda Withers, who deliver disciplined performances as the myth’s parental figures, are especially strong in the second act, when the characters – and, by extension, the audience – begin to understand their world. It would be helpful if such clarity came sooner.
The carefully calibrated depiction of myth contrasts wildly to the rest of the production, which is packed with unabashedly over-the-top performances (Bob Laine portrays the character “Dad” with the Southernest of Southern accents), cheeky meta-theatricality (cast members frequently offer one another acting suggestions) and dreamscape-like silliness (parents embodied as a giant sponge and hammerhead shark, costumed by the immensely imaginative Karen Flood). Yet, rather than work in tandem with the dolphin myth to create a cohesive whole, the larger-than-life flourishes and adornments of these scenes overwhelm the myth’s stylized simplicity.
Composer John Gideon’s musical numbers help weave together the disparate elements of the production. So do scenes in which the full company comes together as "Me" for poetic exchanges of semi-related dialogue. These scenes are entertaining depictions of the complex, often conflicting concerns of the self. “I wonder if that one guy responded to my email,” says one cast member; another wonders, “are my gestures of need sufficiently aloof?”
A plethora of puns undercut potential preciousness of these scenes, but in a production two and a half hours long, even the cleverest wordplay grows tiresome. Still, fans of Bromley’s work should make sure to see the production, not only for his signature punning, but for the insight that Me provides into the mind of the prolific playwright.