MU Premieres ‘Pollywog’

3 Aug

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Pollywog, presented as a world premiere by the small, ever-inventive Houston theater company called Mildred’s Umbrella, is an intriguing evening of theater. It’s ambiguous and eloquent, wordy yet also spare, intellectual yet wildly physical. At times it’s like a ballet with talking. And maybe vice versa as well.

As best I can tell, the play written by Keian McKee and directed at Studio 101 by Matt Huff, is “about” what goes on in the mind of a long-distance swimmer of the sort who takes on the English Channel. Still, it doesn’t take long before this swim emerges as a metaphor for each of our lives, especially as the swimmer named Polly remembers the joys and sorrows of her mother and father (a strange and strained relationship, to say the least) and even gets visits from two famous swimmers who inspired her, Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. The latter, of course, swam a stroke or two in the movies as the greatest Tarzan of them all.

So… time is not a solid thing in Pollywog, presumably as Polly’s mind wanders stroke after stroke. We realize that her mother is now dead, and probably her father as well. Esther and Johnny are dead in real life, real time – indeed, except for on this stage, she has presumably never met either. Yet here they are, participating in scenes from throughout her life, giving her advice and correction, cheering her on toward the sand that waits at the far end of her swim.

That, apparently, is what Pollywog is “about.” But what makes it worth seeing is what we see (and to some degree, hear) as the tale unfolds. Thanks to Huff and longtime local dancer/choreographer Jennifer Wood, swimming itself becomes an act of dance. Time and again, Esther and Johnny form geometric and poetic patterns with their bodies, and sometimes even do creative things with Polly, like stretching her out across a turning chair to swim on the air, spinning her between them as she slowly pulls and kicks. It’s not necessarily complicated, but it’s something I’ve never seen on a stage before. Often, it’s nothing short of beautiful.

Two of the characters, Polly and her mother Jule, have the most serious acting to do, for each has to switch repeatedly through ages and conditions in time. In Polly’s case, that means Courtney Lomelo has to find ways to be a grown woman in quick transition with being a small child, and then quickly back again. She handles the task with instinct and skill, using her voice as a prompt particularly well. Celeste Roberts as Jule has an even bigger job, playing the mother before and after a severe stroke. This requires not only theatrics but a bit of medical understanding. The mouth that droops on one side is an especially effective key to telling us “which one” she is at any given moment and to making post-stroke Jule come alive.

Veteran actor James Belcher does fine work as husband Mort, a hard-working but argumentative sort who travels the roads selling cemetery gravestones, a none-too-subtle reminder that death lurks beside and behind every hope and dream we have. It’s not a morbid thought in Pollywog but a realistic one. Autumn Clark and Jason Duga show off their bodies and their balance impressively through the entire 90-minute, no-intermission running time.

Photos: (top) Courtney Lomelo; (bottom) James Belcher, Autumn Clark and Jason Duga, by Gentle Bear Photography.

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