be•wilder weren’t kidding when they said their company was all about international cultures and a myriad of backgrounds – their debut show Old Joe’s Fish and Chill features a multiracial cast with a multilingual script and characters with serious history.
Old Joe is an extremely ambitious play, and with a fantastic plot and complicated characters, feels more suited as an episodic TV series than a one hour play. Its vision limited by its duration, the various characters strain for time to really leave an impact on the audience. And no doubt, these are fascinating characters, consisting a French drag queen (Paul McAleer), a German-Japanese gangster (Simon Stache), a Finnish letter thief Anne Pajunen), a Czech dictator (Raphael Ruiz), a lungless Brazilian (Stephanie Degreas), an English terrorist (Hadleigh Harrison) and an invisible drifter (Sam Fourness). Old Joe’s script limits this expression somewhat – extremely poetic at times, but often making logical leaps that require intense suspension of belief from the audience, leaving the characters too distanced to warrant us investing emotion in them.
The various character histories are muddled enough to confuse the audience, with far too many webs spun between each one, and some odd directorial choices, such as the Finnish letter thief translating the German-Japanese gangster’s words from English to English. Often verging on the absurd, the characters treat a caged songbird as owner Old Joe himself, and listen to the bird ‘speak’ to them in various languages, and each one reacting in increasingly violent and bizarre ways. ‘Old Joe’ is a strange figure whose role is never fully established – is he a Messianic figure? Or is he a confidante? The combination of the absurd actions, multiple languages and radical world results in a disorienting production, rendering a profound distance between audience and play that cannot be bridged by the sentiment in their stories.
That being said, Old Joe does show occasional flashes of something with much more potential hidden in between the lines. I personally did want to know more about these characters, and believed each one deserved more time to flesh out their backstories and give more insight into their own characterization. Although the team was over-reliant on props to create dramatic tension (way too many guns), it succeeded in creating an uneasy environment, where no one was to be trusted, an atmosphere of suspicion that really emphasised the dystopian world they lived in. The cast was able to deliver on the emotions as required of the script, and Hadleigh Harrison as the mysterious man making profiles of passers-by was particularly expressive with his mid-play breakdown, bringing across the air of an ordinary man beset and overcome by his circumstances. Anne Pajunen, as Naomi the Finnish letter thief, also had one of the more compelling storylines, and in her interactions with Harrison’s character, shared a particularly uneasy tension, and presented herself as a woman swinging from one extreme to another, melodramatic at one moment and completely self assured the next.
Old Joe’s Fish and Chill could perhaps have benefited from either going completely absurd, or much more naturalistic. The disjoint in character behaviours and confusing decisions left us feeling detached from their world. The play could have been stretched out more to give these quirky characters the spotlight they deserved instead of rushing through. What be•wilder should be commended for is their brave foray into such experimental theatre, and their harnessing of their cast’s cultural and social backgrounds to produce a play whose message is both socially relevant and disturbingly possible in future in the post-Trump, new conservative present. One hopes that their execution could be tightened in future productions, and really show off the skills that these young thespians possess.