Review: ‘Selkie’ Makes a Splash of Bad Romance

Out in the water, audibly splashing around, the female selkies are up for a little entertainment, and luckily it’s come to them. Keaton, a not-so-bright American expat, isn’t terribly clear on what selkies are — mythological creatures from multiple folklore traditions who can transform from seals into humans by slipping out of their sealskin. But he has some fuzzy, mistaken notion that they might be able to help him deal drugs in the beach town where he’s just landed. So he brings them his proposition.

In response, the selkies taunt him. They snicker at him. They insist on addressing him as Kitten. Unseen by the audience, they are mere voices. Yet they are hands-down the liveliest element of “Selkie,” Krista Knight’s muddled new dramedy about domestic abuse, directed by Matt Dickson for Dutch Kills Theater Company, at the Wild Project.

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them,” Margaret Atwood is widely credited with saying. “Women are afraid that men will kill them.” That may be why it’s so funny to watch Keaton (Federico Rodriguez) being ridiculed by the selkies. He’s a creep, you see — the kind of guy who likes to surprise his wife, Deanna (Toni Ann DeNoble), with outbursts of violence: choking her here, punching her there. She can’t swim, so dunking her under the water appeals to him, too.

Keaton apparently just sprang Deanna from drug rehab in Arizona, where she wasn’t yet feeling strong in her sobriety, so she is not thrilled that he is back to dealing. But she is wholly dependent on him, it seems, in whatever unnamed country they’ve decided to make their new home. When he tells her to give him her passport so that he can lock it away safely, you know it would be far better for her to leg it out the door of their spirit-suckingly drab motel room.

She stays, though, and from that moment he controls her. And when he somehow — why do we not know how? — kidnaps a selkie named Alondra (Elia Monte-Brown) and steals her seal coat, Alondra can’t leave either.

As a program note explains, this is how it works with selkies: “Whoever controls their seal coat, controls them.” Though if you’re unaware of that rule before the performance, the play won’t do a lot to elucidate. Also befuddling: How is Alondra, in this single room that the three of them share, unable to find where Keaton has stashed her coat?

The set design (by Reid Thompson) is misguided, too literal to be as flexible as the play demands. More elemental, though, is a lack of chemistry between Ms. DeNoble and Mr. Rodriguez that makes Deanna and Keaton unconvincing as a married couple, however twisted their bond. Mr. Rodriguez displays neither the menace nor the charm of an abuser like Keaton.

Mr. Dickson layers on some nice effects, most notably pop-culture images of idealized domesticity in projections by Yana Birykova. But the production doesn’t do much to ground or clarify a tangled play whose smart and intriguing premise, alas, never comes close to paying off.

Through Dec. 22 at the Wild Project, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

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