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In an hour, Jim Julien’s story of simple friendship travels from the depths of the ocean to a fishing ship to a Fishtown restaurant to Duluth to St. Petersburg and back to the deep blue sea. Conveniently, it’s also making a whirlwind pit stop at the Maas Building Cottage, where Cannonball Festival audiences can catch The Squid and the Octopus.
The story begins in a small corner of the ocean where the Squid and the Octopus are living happily—sharing space, companionship, sometimes food. But out of the blue, danger comes cutting across the waves: a trawler is dragging its net, trapping the Squid, the Octopus, and myriad fish into their cozy corner of the ocean before scooping them aboard. And just like that, the Squid and the Octopus end up in Fishtown, in the Michelin-starred, James-Beard-awarded, and perhaps even Zagat-rated restaurant “Phasor Cod.” Run by the capricious restaurateur Caro Savanti, the two squishy cephalopods must hatch an escape plot before Savanti scraps his ambitious investors’ dinner and calamari is back on the menu.
The Squid and The Octopus is wacky and well-executed enough that it’s a good deal of fun. The fun is also due to Julien’s charm as narrator and puppeteer. He has gamely constructed a booth and shadow-puppet screen that, for their size, are capable of impressive flexibility. The screen almost magically evokes the water of the play’s varied settings, with the first ocean scene almost replicating the optical sensation of being underwater. As Squid and Octopus travel from ocean to restaurant to nighttime kitchen, colored backlighting is diffused to create profound blue depth, a cramped fluorescent-lit tank, or eerie green night-vision.
But this isn’t a lightshow—it’s a show of puppets and the audience meets a variety of them. The shadow puppets are by far the most enchanting: positioned behind the screen, their black cutout forms loom indistinctly before being cast into sharp relief against the screen. There are two Squids and Octopuses of different sizes; the odd generic trout form; a trawler that floats on top of the screen; and a delightfully mounted school of fish designed to move in a continuous swirl. While the puppets with human shapes are made of what looks like cardboard and Styrofoam painted in the cheerful spirit of caricature, the forms of the sea creatures carry a sense of craftsmanship and attention to detail, as if they’re the only clear points of reference in the sea of spectacle.
Worth the trip
The Squid and Octopus remain silent throughout, providing a wide-open platform for the parodied lines of restaurant life and Julien’s narration. One of the longest scenes involves a protracted smoke break between the sous chef and the restaurant’s seasoned social-media manager, but the dialogue is less believable conversation than a vehicle for advancing the madcap story’s plot (which it does, with as much economy as the puppet booth itself). Julien’s narration is delivered in a velvety voice made for the stage, and his delivery during the show’s second performance was steady. He performs his lines and those of his puppets with a bracingness that emphasizes the zaniness of the narrative without rendering it as jumpy or jumbled.
The Squid and The Octopus is an absurdist satire that will have audience members rooting for its silent sea-dwelling protagonists. The play is worth a trip to the small performance space in Maas Cottage for those interested in a side of seafood that isn’t the usual fare.
What, When, Where
The Squid and The Octopus, written and performed by Jim Julien. $20. Through September 13, 2022 at Maas Building Cottage, 1320 N 5th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination and masks are required to attend the performance.
The Maas Building Cottage is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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