If you combine the 2017 film “The Shape of Water,” Mel Brooks’s comedy classic “Young Frankenstein” and a 1960s sitcom of your choice, you may start to form a picture in your mind of what Book-It Repertory Theatre is putting on stage, through April 17, with its production of “Mrs. Caliban.”
If you read the 1982 novella of the same name by Rachel Ingalls, adapted for the stage here by Frances Limoncelli, you may know the plot. Dorothy is a housewife in an unhappy marriage, stuck in a routine with her husband Fred, who regularly works late and never seems to have time for her. Every day, after he leaves for work, Dorothy’s routine continues as she cleans the house and listens to the radio. She knows the radio advertisements by heart, saying words she’s heard so many times right along with the voice-over.
That is, until one day when the advertisements start to eerily morph (some incredible sound work from designer Rob Witmer), taunting her about the fact that her husband is likely having an affair. The rest of the story plays out like a surreal, supernatural sitcom that brings Dorothy face to face with an amphibious man from an underwater world and the chance to finally find the companionship she’s been so lacking in her life.
At the center of this story is Sunam Ellis. She plays a timid and skittish Dorothy, who has an almost compulsive need to please others above her own desires. An early scene in the play sees Dorothy out shopping with her friend Estelle (Angela DiMarco) when she’s offered a cheese square to sample, which Dorothy very clearly doesn’t actually want. But there goes Dorothy anyway, shoving cheese cube after cheese cube into her mouth because the product sampler “really wanted us to eat that cheese.” (The comedy of this scene and many others is punctuated by some excellent dry humor from Zenaida Rose Smith, who plays a variety of roles, including the product sampler here.)
Ellis shines as Dorothy. Any moment Dorothy is even the least bit flustered is comedic gold from Ellis and every tick enthralling to watch. Her performance in moments like these makes it so clear why, when a tall, green lizard man the news has been warning people to avoid shows up at her kitchen door, her impulse is to help.
Enter Quinlan Corbett as Larry, a cross between the amphibian man from “The Shape of Water” and Brooks’ tap-dancing Frankenstein’s monster. While Corbett may not break out into “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” it’d be well within his opera aria-loving, vegetarian Larry’s wheelhouse to pop it on the radio and get his foot to tappin’.
What’s so fun about this supernatural play is that it asks you to sit with what a “monster” actually is. In Larry, Dorothy finds the true partnership she wasn’t receiving from her husband Fred (Benjamin McFadden). Corbett’s Larry seems genuinely curious, not just about the strange world around him, but in Dorothy. Cold, rote conversations between Fred and Dorothy give way to warm, delightful chats between Dorothy and Larry. It’s lovely to watch Ellis navigate these two worlds, searching for someone — be it her husband to whom she remains committed or her new lover — she can truly open up to and find the happiness she deserves.
Director Kelly Kitchens faces a difficult challenge navigating all of the morals at play in “Mrs. Caliban.” After all, despite what he’s able to bring to Dorothy’s life, Larry is being very publicly accused of murder and dragged through the media as a true monster. Kitchens does a wonderful job allowing this play to be outstandingly funny while not losing the weight of the fact that our new amphibian friend may be more dangerous than he lets on. Kitchens also excels at patience in her directing, being comfortable with stillness and silence on stage, which allows the surreal moments of the play to pop (and is a testament to how commanding Ellis, even in silence, is on stage).
Unfortunately, when things take a dark turn down the stretch of this play, that steady pacing and patience seem to slip away. The end of the play, which I won’t spoil here, comes with some rapid-fire revelations about Larry, Estelle and Fred that left a few (myself included) musing on the way out, trying to pick up and put together the pieces of story that felt like they were shot out of a confetti cannon. As Limoncelli’s adaptation skips along to end the night, the morals that were so carefully being set up get fuzzy and it’s hard to fully appreciate the fallout of a marriage on the brink, a monster in your house and a friend who suddenly finds herself in need.
“Mrs. Caliban” is a lot of fun and a true pleasure for any science fiction or fantasy fan especially. Each performer shines and it’s great to have theater that’s a little weird in your life (shoutout to Lucas Hnath’s “The Thin Place” at A Contemporary Theatre, making for two delightfully unsettling Seattle productions). When this production is on, it’s captivating to watch. But when it comes time to bring it home, it may leave you feeling a bit like you’re swimming upstream.