“The End of Mermaids” is a new, fun, and rollicking tragicomedy now playing as part of the Corkscrew Festival at 64 East 4th Street in Manhattan, playing from July 12th to 22nd. It stars Isabella Dawis as mermaid-newcomer Marie, Elizabeth Evans as showrunner Lila, Patrick Reilly as the alligator, Lindsey Spohler as mermaid Vana, and Maggie Thompson as mermaid Bee, and was written by Anya Richkind, and directed by Allison Benko. This is a great play and you should go see it.
First of all, mermaids do exist! The half-woman-half-fish creatures have appeared for centuries in folklore, and they exist like Santa Clause or Mickey Mouse in the United States. This play concerns the second category, and takes place at the fictitious Mermaidland, where actresses perform daily shows for attendees. The women at these shows, and in real life, don mermaid fins which serve as costumes they swim in.
“The End of Mermaids,” is a short 1-Act play with three parts. The first part concerns a newcomer, Marie, and how she adapts to become a professional mermaid performer. This parallels Harry Potter and the movie, “Training Day,” as a way to introduce the character and the audience to the world of these performing mermaids. At the end of this section, Marie punches an alligator in the nose. The second part of the play kills off one of the characters while one of the mermaids is dance-swimming, and the last section of the play sees the remaining characters wondering if they should close Mermaidland in consequence.
The show uses humor in many ways. There is a sheer ecstasy of the performers, and by extension the actresses who play the performers, because they are dressing up as mermaids! In concert with this is a zany and physical humor – in the opening dance routine, the boss of the dancers wields a bubble gun to comedic effect. Elsewhere, the alligator character acts in pure passion, contrasting with the mermaid women who use perfected and practiced routines.
This play is great partly because of its set design by An-Lin Dauber. The backdrop of the play is sequined 1960’s-style string-curtains that are translucent and spiral as the characters move into and out of the scenes. It’s an elegant metaphor for water because the strings ripple when the characters touch them.
The character of Lila is similar to a character in the Nicholson Baker book, House of Holes, who has the same name. In that book, as in this play, the character is a one-hundred percent true-believer, and serves as comic relief from being so one-dimensional. Belief at all costs? As the body count adds up, the Lila in “Mermaids,” says the YouTube views will be good for ticket sales. Lila serves as a contrast to the other characters, who want to navigate the conflict of belief and doubt about the whole enterprise. Lila ultimately succumbs to the alligator, and the play leaves it to the audience to recognize that Lila’s beliefs are what lead to her downfall.
In terms of symbolism, mermaids represent how girls become women. When Arielle in Disney’s, “The Little Mermaid,” sings about “Part of that world,” she’s talking about being a grownup and having the freedoms of being an adult. The discerning art critic might notice the mermaids in this play don tiaras made with plastic forks, which simultaneously serve as a quick gag and a nod to “The Little Mermaid,” because in the movie forks were so important to Arielle. Fish are dumb, but they swim, and so they fly in their own way. Likewise, oceans have connotations of depth and emotion, so a mermaid represents what happens to all people as they mature and come to grips with emotions and responsibilities of being an adult. Everyone has a world of emotion behind them that they must reconcile.
People who don’t grow up are cloying and sometimes dangerous. In popular culture, there’s always the 30-year-old bro who won’t let go of the red solo cup and the Dave Matthews music, and this is tragic because this person misses out on the world Arielle so desperately wanted to be part of. It’s also a bit sick, because the person who refuses to grow up isn’t dealing with the gravity that many times dreams don’t always come true and that life has downsides. The person who refuses to grow up is, in effect, putting on an act. And so, as a correlative to the first-order fantastical mermaid, there’s also the mermaid-performer. In popular culture, this appears as a mascot who takes off the Chuck E. Cheese helmet for a cigarette break and acts like a cynic. The beauty of an actress who pretends to be a mermaid, or a mascot, is the grace she shows in the performance. Here it must be noted all three mermaids in this play were beautiful dancers -- because mermaids are beautiful, and they do teach lessons of grace. Part of the importance of actresses, dancers, and mascots, and these symbols is they show that having emotions as a kid or as an adult is good.
Initiation has special significance in this play. The newcomer, Marie, is a proxy for the audience, and an excuse to show the audience what Mermaidland and pretending to be a mermaid is all about. In “Training Day,” this meant learning about being a police officer, and in Harry Potter, this means learning to become a wizard, and also introducing Harry to the misfits and intricacies of the magic world. The character of Marie punches out the alligator villain midway through the play, and the characters eat alligator barbecue as part of this victory. Marie’s initiation therefore shows a trajectory of love and the tragedy is Marie has to let go of her dream when the metaphoric alligator returns later in the play and starts killing people.
In the third part of this play, Lila has a heart-to-heart with the alligator. She says business at Mermaidland is so good the alligator can’t shut the park down. The alligator – metaphorically, and silently in pantomime, tells her no and eats her. This smacks of the old joke that if you make a deal with the evil, make sure you have a good lawyer and a good contract. This is a typical deal-with-the-devil, originally in the play “Faust” by Goethe in the 19th century.
More unique to this play is the playwright’s use of fantasy in how this alligator acts like a seedy businessman. The show is premised on a sort of second-order fantasy, that the mermaids are not straight fantastical creatures, but rather performers who must navigate belief and doubt themselves. On the other hand, the alligator character isn’t a performer, or fantastically an alligator. He’s an alligator who acts like a businessman. The playwright thus makes the alligator a stand-in for any anxiety.
In its ingenuity, choreography, and imagination, “The End of Mermaids,” is a splendid and sordid affair. This play is brilliant, wonderful, and romantic about dreams, and the obstacles people face in working to make those dreams come true. This play is brilliant and emotional without being a downer. This play will make an audience laugh at the “alligators” in their own lives. “The End of Mermaids” is a truly awesome play and is not to be missed!