A young girl wears a diving mask and a Catholic-school uniform. Music swells as she swims around the stage, which is a surreal mélange of seascape and 1960s’ living room, complete with huge stands of seaweed in lieu of houseplants and dock posts in lieu of stair rails. Everything is awash in blue light. So begins Girl in the Goldfish Bowl: a delightful yet dark piece of theatre by renowned Canadian playwright Morris Panych, directed by Janet Munsil.
The young girl is Iris, played by Lianne Coates. Coates’ performance is immediately endearing. She is able to swing between familiar-yet-entertaining trope—the precocious ten-year-old, always up to no good but simultaneously spouting tiny nuggets of wisdom—and round, fleshed-out character, depending on what the scene calls for. Iris lives at home on the Pacific coast with her mother and father (played respectively by Connie McConnell and Wayne Yercha) as well as Miss Rose, a border who works at the fish-canning factory down the road (played by Hilary F. Allan). But this nuclear family is on the brink of collapse. The Cuban Missile Crisis looms over the household. Owen, Iris’ father, is a war veteran addicted to prescription pills and perfect geometry. Sylvia, her mother, can’t decide whether to leave or stay. And Miss Rose simply can’t keep it in her pants. Then, to complicate matters further, Iris rescues a soaked stranger from the seaside and brings him home, convinced that he is the reincarnation of her beloved and recently deceased goldfish, Amahl.
The play is exactly as quirky and over-the-top as it sounds. Panych’s writing moves between a farcical version of kitchen-sink dialogue, delivered with excellent comedic timing by Yercha and McConnell, and more weighted (yet no less hilarious) internal monologues and asides. It is clear that director Janet Munsil has worked closely with Coates to polish her movements: Iris sighs, gesticulates, and spins across the stage with precision. In fact, the entire show is extremely well choreographed, down to small details such as the way that Yercha thumps down the stairs and into the living room, always leading with his left foot.
But the most magical moments in the show are easily those between Iris and Mr. Lawrence, her possibly reincarnated goldfish slash best-and-only friend. John Manson somehow manages to maintain Mr. Lawrence’s slack-jawed stare throughout the entire piece without breaking focus. His eyes bulge. He moves jerkily. He repeats questions, statements, and noises back at anybody he speaks to. And yet his relationship with Iris is downright adorable, if not a touch morbid. This is the line that Panych’s writing playfully dances along; that place where the whimsy of childhood meets the harshness of reality.
Credit should also be given to the entire design team for their work. The set for Girl in the Goldfish Bowl (by Don Keith) captures the best of the play’s two worlds—Iris’ abstract, submersed internal world (her “goldfish bowl”) and her real world, 1960s’ home. The “walls” of the home are enormous rhomboids (a clever tip-off to her father’s obsession with geometry) with a scaly, transparent material on their insides. There are many small nautical touches that are worth some careful observation either pre-show or during intermission. The sound design, too (by Jason King) contributed to many of the show’s more poignant moments without ever becoming overbearing.
All in all, Girl in the Goldfish Bowl is definitely worth seeing. Go for the intriguing and absurd premise; stay for the writing, design and performances.