With the world premiere of Shapeshifter, Trinity Rep’s 2008-2009 season comes to an end. Actually, one feels on leaving the theatre that it has come to the edge of a bending horizon and disappeared only from sight: the play, and the season, end wistfully, with the promise of further adventures bunched and blurred like a distant and indistinct silhouette. But the prospect of a fulfilling future is no match, as drama at least, for the realization of something meaningful and passionate now, and what Shapeshifter lacks is a moment, a present, in which life is frozen and shown in exultant detail. This is not to say that there are no great moments in the play—there are—but that the play itself only describes, and does not evoke, a long moment of crisis, and so the decision with which it ends is noisy but spurious. More interested in surfaces than depths, in action than in introspection, the show has a shape but no spirit.
It is not for lack of trying. Laura Schellhardt wrote her play around the perplexing and life-long question of identity—which, really, is what most art is about—and she has set it in a magical milieu: the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland, which are nestled in mist and enthralled by the inscrutable behavior of shapeshifters, supernatural beings who can assume animal and human form. Midge, a young girl whose erratic behavior since her mother’s death worries her father (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) and her caretakers, the loving and gently teasing Fierson (Brian McEleney) and Maude (Anne Scurria), has a strong connection to the water and its spirits—and, somehow, we know, to the shapeshifters as well. She senses her difference from the others in her small fishing village but cannot express it. Fierson nurtures her incipient awareness of who she is in the dark loam of the stories he tells her about shapeshifters and transformation and love and sacrifice; to Maude, however, these tales are just arid fantasy: life is a series of practical challenges, like keeping one’s house clean and family fed.
But Midge is not the only one in the village transfixed by the power of the shapeshifters: her caretakers’ son, Tom (Stephen Thorne), rescues one from the ocean, falls in love with her, and marries her—all this in spite of her inability to speak English, though her whale is quite good—while other villagers have their own encounters with members of this mystical species. (Rachael Warren plays all of the shapeshifters, finding distinguishing physical mannerisms in each.) These scenes, episodic and elliptical, are animated not by the breath of character but by the machinery of caricature. Douglas (Joe Wilson, Jr.), for example, captures a shapeshifter, imprisons her, and tries to force her to marry him. What accounts for his ugly rapacity we never learn; his prehensile lust is merely a cynical contrast to Tom’s innocent affection. It’s not that the story needs more exposition or supposed psychological realism, but that its emotions need more mass. They are colorful and large, but they are hollow. Douglas is not a compelling character if he simply hates shapeshifters: what is his real quarrel with himself or with the world? What wrong does he mean to avenge, what imbalance does he mean to right, by dominating and demoralizing this shapeshifter? The audience learns as much about him as we might about a neighbor whose windows we walk past in the evening.
The play’s perfunctory characterization may be a function of its debt to the oral storytelling tradition. Plaited through the show is a fantastical story that Midge co-authors with Fierson and that changes direction as Midge herself changes. To reinforce this connection between Midge and the story she tells, Schellhardt has her watching action onstage even when she is not a part of it. These scenes, unfortunately, replicate the play’s problem: it all feels diffused and distorted, as though observed through the murky medium of a child’s avid and unrefined curiosity. There’s nothing recognizable in any of the characters—except for what we recognize from other plays and movies we’ve seen. Like Midge, who thinks that she can find the perfect name for someone by asking what he loves and what he hates, Schellhardt seems to believe that personality can be determined by two-question survey. So: Fierson is sweet-natured and imaginative but casually dismissive of his wife. Maude seems at first merely long-suffering and hard-headed, until she shows Midge a box containing artifacts from her youth—the skin she changed out of, but could not discard, when she married Fierson. Tom is love-struck and naïve, and Douglas is an unrepentant brute. Even Midge, the sympathetic center of the show, is a cipher, although she is rendered excitedly by Miriam Silverman.
Schellhardt thinks that shapeshifters can act as an illuminating metaphor for the story of any person’s maturation, which is a process of expansion and compromise, of fluidity and assertion, but she has worked backwards from this thesis to a play. As evidentiary drama, as Theatre of the Sincere, Shapeshifter is perfectly crafted; it presents its ideas efficiently, persuasively, even attractively. But it should not be mistaken for a show about actual people.