This review is of the 2017 production of James Anthony Tyler's 'Dolphins and Sharks' at the Finborough Theatre, particularly the performance on the 12th of September.
'Dolphins and Sharks' is sort of 'The Typists' by way of 'Throne of Blood'. A young man from Staten Island, Yusuf, is hired into a copy shop in Harlem as a means of getting by and paying his overdue rent. Like 'The Typists' Paul Cunningham, he is young, intelligent, keen-eyed and ambitious. The two women who work in the shop, Xiomara and Isabel, eventually hire Yusuf after much persuasion.
But unlike 'The Typists', which is about two employees who go nowhere, 'Dolphins and Sharks' is about what would happen if one of them goes somewhere.
The company's CEO, an ominous, unseen threat to the harmony of the community, hires one of the employees as manager, and friendships start to deteriorate in the workplace. Also, the photocopier may or may not be a lie detector.
The play is sharply written by James Tyler, with witty dialogue and characters who are not good or bad people, but all victims of societal prejudice and corporate racism.
Director Lydia Parker adds her unique flourishes of humour to the first act, which makes Isabel and Xiomara's friendship seem very close and personal. Her choreography is dynamic and original.
The opening has the five characters, including their regular client, enacting the work of a chain gang on a railroad. This was not Lydia Parker's idea, but playwright James Tyler's. For all of the sharp dialogue in Tyler's writing, this was a choice that was annoyingly banal. It also talks down to the audience. We're not stupid. We know the implications within the play that are already explained in the dialogue.
This opening was specifically written in the script, so Tyler could have done without it. The contract for producing the play included the rule that Parker couldn't change his writing. Still, this choice from Tyler was a bad one.
This is also shown by the beginning of the second act, where the characters all scream in frustration as they're being worked for little reward. This was Shyko Amos' (Isabel) idea, and it is much better. It says a lot about the societal structure without being too heavy handed.
In light of this, the play comes off as having more than one director. Too many cooks spoil the broth.
A couple of the actors try to direct themselves and it does not work in their favour. It's obvious that they had agreed with Parker's ideas in rehearsals and then during the performance decided to disobey her for some reason.
Hermelio Miguel Aquino is too over the top as Danilo, the janitor, to make him the slightest bit sympathetic or relatable. This was Aquino's own choice and it was a self-sabotaging one. Of course, Danilo is supposed to be a funny character, but even Belulah Archuletta's character in 'The Searchers', T'sala-ta-komal-ta-name, carried herself with dignity, even in the face of the film's racist misogyny. Did Aquino think that he was helping the play's message by making Danilo so obnoxious and unlikable?
Shyko Amos is excellent as Isabel for the most part. She understands her character and connects with her. However, the way she has Isabel react to bad news brought to her in the second to last scene is forced and unnatural, and again, much too overblown. Of course, Isabel's situation is bad, but it doesn't warrant such histrionics. Like Hermelio, this was her own choice and had she listened to the director, she would have elicited sympathy from the audience by making it more natural.
Still, as before, her idea about the opening of the second act was a good one, especially compared to Tyler's idea for opening the first act.
Ammar Duffus, Rachel Handshaw and Miquel Brown are all very good in their respective roles. Duffus' Yusuf is mild-mannered and likeable, Handshaw's no-nonsense Xiomara is professional and beleaguered, with enough subtlety to make her believable, and Brown's Ms. Amenze is warm and intelligent.
A very interesting play, which has to be seen for Parker's strong direction.