On Monday afternoon, 80 first graders at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School took the stage to present “Go Fish!” The one-act play, directed by music teacher Lisa Rennell, boasted five songs and an audience participation element, but its true accomplishment may be that it was the single worst performance I have had the misfortune of sitting through in my 34 years as Arts Critic for The Jonesborough Dispatch.
There were plenty of ominous indications before the play even began that this would be a catastrophe. I was willing to look past the cheap set made out of construction paper, and even the lazy t-shirt and shorts costumes that were totally inappropriate for a show that supposedly took place underwater. But when audience members eagerly took their seats and began waving to various performers, the actors broke a cardinal rule of theater by doing the same. Unsurprisingly, this extreme lack of professionalism extended to the entire program. (I even noticed many in the audience brazenly recording bootleg videos of the show—good luck trying to sell it.)
Though there were about a dozen speaking roles, the show primarily focused on Gracie the Goldfish (played by the unintelligible Sarah Sanderson—or should I say, “Tharah Thanderthon”) and Stanley the Shark (Max Wendell, who delivered his lines in a dull monotone—on the rare occasions that he actually remembered them, that is). The story was even less inspired than their performances, with predictable motifs about the importance of friendship and inclusion, delivered with all the subtlety of being torn apart by a piranha. As Gracie and her friends of all different species of fish enjoy a play date, Stanley intrudes in the hopes of obtaining an invitation. The group quite understandably refuses.
One does not need to be a marine biologist to know that sharks are natural predators, and that other sea creatures are fixtures in their diets. Stanley promises not to eat them, but isn’t that exactly what a cunning shark would say in this situation? Of course, the play conveniently ignored this fact in order to push its shortsighted agenda. The tactic backfired though, because Stanley’s increasingly whiny diatribes about being left out do not serve to make the character any more sympathetic; in fact, they underscore why nobody wants to hang out with the guy, regardless of his being a shark. By the end, the fish unsurprisingly decide to let Stanley play with them. The impact of this conclusion was diluted when Wendell forgot his next line, which turned out to be, “That’s great!”
The performers’ stilted delivery actually may have done the play’s anonymous author a favor, however, as it distracted from such contrived dialogue as, “Curly the clownfish, quit clowning around!” Indeed, the show was stuffed to the gills with more predictable underwater puns than you could shake a fishstick at, leaving no wonder as to why the writer opted not to receive a credit. Of course, that could also be because the plot was lifted directly from last year’s first grade play, “Bugging Out!” This blatant rewrite merely changed the antagonist from a stinkbug to a shark.
Immediately after the play’s long-awaited conclusion, Rennell went on stage, presumably to apologize for what the audience had just witnessed. But before she could, she was ambushed by the two leads, who awarded her a bouquet of flowers. Given the abhorrent quality of their performances, one can only assume that this was not the first bribe the duo presented to Rennell. Her biggest of many missteps was relegating six-year-old ingénue Megan van Schmuten to the chorus. This Broadway-bound young lady clearly deserved a greater role, and she could have saved “Go Fish!” from being such an affront to the theater world.
Had this been the play the school’s namesake attended that fateful day in 1865, his assassination would have gone down in history as a mercy killing.
Anthony Coro is a recent college graduate currently working as a videographer. You won’t find him on Facebook or Twitter, but you’re still welcome to call him your friend.
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