Imagine you're watching "Jeopardy," the category is "Now Playing in New York," and the answer is: “Story of an adventurous father who disappears, never to be found, while searching for something many believe is fictional.” The question could actually be two things: What is The Lost City of Z, an epic-scaled movie? Or what is Fossils, an entry in the Brits Off-Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters, and the subject of this review?
|Helen Vintren. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Written and directed by Nel Crouch, Fossils is a seriocomic piece featuring three fine young British actors performing in a spare set (designed by Rebecca Jane Wood and lit by Joe Price) consisting of nothing but a table with sound equipment, and surrounded by Plexiglas containers holding water, toy boats, and dinosaurs.
Originally produced by Bucket Club at several UK festivals, including the Edinburgh Fringe (August 2016), the play depends on clever theatricalist devices, especially an unusual soundscape performed by the actors themselves; it mingles electronic sounds, Foley effects, and violin and harmonium music. The actors also sing to offbeat melodies and rhythms by David Ridley. Some dialogue is spoken with a handheld mic.
Although Fossils doesn't seem to have been created as devised theatre it uses similar directorial touches whereby minimalist techniques using found objects help create a large world on a small budget. Boat rides, for example, are indicated by an actor holding a toy boat, additional characters are indicated by actors holding up toy dinosaurs, and drumsticks serve as windshield wipers. There’s nothing especially new in this kind of staging but it has a certain charm.
Such directorial tics are crucial supplements to Fossil's spare tale of an ambitious 28-year-old scientist, Dr. Vanessa Robertson (Helen Vinten, excellent), an evolutionary biologist working as a research assistant at a university in Norfolk. She and her two prankish, Ph.D. candidate lab assistants, Dom (Adam Farrell) and Myles (Luke Murphy), are currently researching the rare coelacanth. This is a prehistoric fish once considered extinct but discovered in modern times to still exist in the Indian Ocean.
Vanessa’s research obsession, which gives her little private life and which she hopes will lead to a professorial position, is a way of coping with the loss of her scientist dad, Glen, an imaging specialist who created MRI scanners for hospitals; he vanished when she was 16, leaving behind Vanessa, who adored him, and her mom. Glen's disappearance is related to his preoccupation with finding the Loch Ness monster, a cryptozoological quest that goes against the grain of Vanessa's firm belief in the strictly scientific method. At the same time, the coelacanth is itself a creature long considered nonexistent who only in modern times was rediscovered.
A request from Nature, the prestigious science magazine, to follow up on Glen's research about Nessie, takes Vanessa and Dom to Loch Ness, where the line between science and pseudoscience blends as the search for the monster becomes a metaphor for the one for Vanessa's father. The resolution, though, remains as murky as the waters of the vast Scottish lake.
Vinten, Farrell, and Ridley succeed in keeping us involved in Crouch's slight, quirky piece, their occasional infusions of dry humor and music leavening the atmosphere. It's not particularly memorable but it's done well enough to hold your interest for 65 minutes, which, while it's too late for me, may prevent you from becoming a fossil yourself.
59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through May 14