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A CurtainUp Review
The Patron Saint Of Sea Monsters
By Jacob Horn
While Aubrey secretly prays to St. Martyrbride — the patron saint of spinsters, childhood infirmity, and sea monsters — for Calvin's attention, Calvin intends to take advantage of Aubrey. But things rarely go as expected when it comes to love. As Marlane Meyer's The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters illustrates, it's a concept closely tied up with other forces like animal desire, human rationality, faith, and morality.
This new play is directed by Lisa Peterson and now at Playwrights Horizons. It's a finely composed, polished take on a gritty (sometimes raunchy) story that can horrify as it amuses, while also offering plenty of existential food for thought.
Patron Saint tells an intricate story that defies simple description. In an interview with Meyer on Playwrights Horizons' YouTube page, even the playwright herself seems to stumble in summarizing the play. This is telling: perhaps the play is at least as much about an exploration of human nature as it is about a particular narrative that begs to be analyzed, not just observed.
Peterson seems keenly aware of this. She embraces and embellishes elements of magical realism in the script, skillfully aided by the show's designers. Rachel Hauck's set, characterized by precisely organized chaos, and Darron West's original music combine especially well to create a sense of the play's strange world.
Following Meyer's suggestion, Peterson also double casts particular roles, guiding the actors in revealing thematic connections and binaries that relate to the larger ideas within the play. For example, Candy Buckley's performance in the three maternal roles of Helen, Mrs. Carlsen, and Lynette explores the idea of motherhood: how mothers can help/hurt their children, what it means to take care of/protect one's child and how this relationship can change. Always an invigorating presence here, Buckley plays a key role in many of the most comical and brutal moments.
Underpinning much of the play is a constant concern with the similarities between the human and animal worlds. Calvin's mother Helen is wolf-like in her whatever-it-takes instincts to protect her son. Meanwhile, Aubrey's mother Lynette, residing in a posh sanitarium hopped up on meds for her psychosis (epitomizing medical science counteracting nature), has become inhuman in her emotional neglect of her daughter.
Peterson's insertion of actors portraying animals in clever interludes between scenes and in the background throughout heightens this awareness of the animality in the human and the humanity in the animal. The central story about Aubrey and Calvin is related as well.
Aubrey's attraction to Calvin is almost animal in nature. It's seemingly inexplicable and would come off as entirely unbelievable if not for Heisler's incredible sincerity. It's easy to feel terrible for Aubrey at first, but as she spends more time with Calvin, Heisler and Campbell's nuanced performances illustrate convincing and compelling transformations in their characters.
The obedience of their animal instincts cause many of the play's characters to make decisions that are everything from unwise to upsetting, from taking up with the wrong person to committing acts of violence. Meyer insists on the prominence of comic elements and the cast has wonderful comedic timing. Yet much of this humor comes in moments so otherwise horrifying that it can be hard to laugh.
The way the playwright embraces these tensions between the tragic and the comic and the real and the surreal is one of the most interesting features of Patron Saint. The resulting world is one that is filled with enchantments and disenchantments, wonderful fantasies paired with grim realities. It may not always be pleasant to watch, but nonetheless, this cerebral and well-composed dramedy is quite worth seeing.