‘Goldfish Thinking’ at Longacre Lea by Kim Moeller

I love everything about Goldfish Thinking. It has a smart and truly funny script, one of the finest ensemble casts I have seen this year, and an impressive leading actor in Heather Haney. The direction, set, lighting, and sound design all deserve high praise. And if that isn’t enough, you’ll spend less than $20 per ticket and enjoy free and easy street parking, making this one of the top bangs for your DC theater bucks.

Jennifer Hopkins and Heather Haney. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Jennifer Hopkins and Heather Haney. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The production is the latest from Longacre Lea, a theater company whose tagline is “Physical Productions of Cerebral Works.” Indeed, you will need to use your neural pathways for this absurdly comic yet introspective exploration of the nature of dreams, thoughts, guilt, and innocence. It’s well worth the visit.

The show entertainingly combines thought-provoking questions with both overt and smart, subtle humor throughout the two hour drama that follows a Georgetown law student and her obsession with her dreams.

We are introduced to Dana Semenko and her three study buddies in the law school library. Although they are studying, Warner, who appears to be the class clown, is leading a round of Mad Libs. The scene is more than just a clever introduction to these characters. The words and ideas will reappear throughout the show.

Life becomes surreal for Dana as she grows increasingly obsessed with her recurring dream that involves a dead body, a detective (in trench coat and fedora, natch), an accusation of murder, and a seemingly random appearance by Chairman Mao Zedong. Dana’s fixation on understanding her dreams breaks down the line between dream and reality, driving her to uncharacteristic behavior involving a friend and the law school’s most fearsome prof. Her friends try to help but to no avail. She seeks an interpretation of her dreams from a therapist, a New Age healer, and a psychic. Who is the dead man? Why is she accused of murder? Why is she having these dreams? Like a good murder mystery, we, too, become obsessed with learning the answers. What does it all mean?

The story works well because every actor has been well cast and hits just the right notes in both the real and surreal scenes, although these often overlap. The dialogue truly seems as if it is the first time the words are being said and the actors’ body language and facial expressions appear to be natural and unrehearsed actions and reactions. Even with half the cast playing multiple roles, each character remains distinct and well-defined.

Heather Haney as the dream obsessed Dana Semenko is perfect. From her sigh during the session with the New Age healer to the quizzical look  when she finds her hands covered in blood to her frantic questioning of the suspects in her dream – Haney effortlessly and authentically conveys her character’s earnest searching for answers as her mind becomes unhinged. I am looking forward to seeing her in her next role in Theater J’s Our Class.

Jesse Terrill and Chris Davenport. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There is so much good to say about the entire cast who worked so well together. This is one of those shows that has the potential for actors to over-act and attempt to upstage one another, and, thankfully, these problems never materialized here. Michael Glenn as Dana’s classmate Warner Warren has great comedic timing. William Hayes as study buddy John Hastings expresses his character’s vulnerabilities without ever resorting to cliché. Ashley DeMartin (Helene Saunders), the most focused and logical member of the study foursome, offers just the right counterpoint to the others.

Every actor has their moment to shine – but for me the standout performance was Chris Davenport who played Chairman Mao as well as a therapist and a Brit named Basil. In an amateur’s hands, the role of Chairman Mao could go so very wrong and bring down the entire show but Davenport’s experience and talent really sells it. As the story progresses, he must quickly jump between the Chinese revolutionary and the British bridge player and he is able to do so with little more than a change of hat and accent.

Other notable performances are given by Anna Brungardt who can transform her facial expressions and body positions in remarkable ways and Jesse Terrill who brings to life three very different characters, Professor Edelman, a Judge, and Nigel. Tyler Herman is very funny as the New Age Healer and the detective. Slice Hicks has four roles including the ‘dead man’ and Trustworthy Man. Jennifer Hopkins rounds out the cast as the Psychic. This ensemble is truly outstanding and the best I have seen in quite some time.

I was engaged immediately upon entering the theater with Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s multi-level set design. Books of all shapes and sizes form the foundation of the set with every inch of the small space used to great effect. John Burkland’s lighting successfully moves us between the bright light of reality to the dimly surreal while keeping us focused on the action. Neil McFadden’s sound effects create a rich dimension to the show while Gail Stewart Beach’s costumes are spot on.

Ultimately, it is Playwright and Director Kathleen Akerley who deserves the most credit for the success of this production. Her superb script and skilled direction gives the story its depth and insights without ever taking itself too seriously. Dreams are a tricky topic -rarely linear, logical, or even plausible – and it can be easy for an audience to lose their way in the story – but Akerley keeps us on the right path and brings the many puzzle pieces together (although I am still scratching my head over the Woman in Blue). Her dialogue is genuine, her wit sharp, and she directs her talented cast to exceptional performances.

Quite simply, Akerley and her cast and crew have created an evening of theater that audiences hope for and dream about.

Running Time: Two hours and five minutes with one intermission.

William Hayes and Michael Glenn. Photo by C.Stanley Photography.

Longacre Lea’s production of Goldfish Thinking plays through September 9, 2012 at The Callan Theatre at Catholic University – 3801 Harewood Road NE, Washington, DC. Tickets are $15-$18 and can be reserved online. Wednesday night Walk-Up/Standby Tickets (if available) are Pay-What-You-Can.


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