The other day, I saw a poster for a small, local stage production called Redfish: A Comedy About Depression. When I looked it up online, I discovered the titular “Redfish” is a superhero. A play combining depression and superheroes? It’s like this was made for me. Luckily, I saw the play’s final showing this morning. I enjoyed it so much that I felt I needed to write a review about it and shout praises to all involved. And add a few minor criticisms which – like I would – I’m sure they’ll take way too much to heart than I intend.
Like my love for superheroes, I’m open about my struggles with depression. Only a few days ago, I broke out of a near month-long bout of depression where I stayed at home, shuffling between playing video games (The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine, and Stardew Valley) or sleeping.
There are things about my life these days that I plan on making separate posts about. One has a working title of “The Wall.” I also plan on posting about my short story The Never Ending Battle getting republished recently, but I’ll wait until I have a copy of the magazine. Stay tuned for that, though, because I’ve actually reworked the decade-old story, so it’ll be reworked AND re-posted!
Directed by Tessa Mendel, Redfish is co-written by and co-stars Taylor Olson and Rachel Hastings. It’s a semi-autobiographical play about two young people struggling with depression, insecurities, and self-doubt in middle school and high school. Their doubt and insecurities are personified by the charismatic Redfish.
Olson primarily plays the role of Ethan, a promising hockey player hoping to hit the big leagues, struggling to live up to the expectations put on by himself and by his peers. However, he doesn’t eat, breathe, and live hockey like his friend. A poet/writer at heart, Ethan is terrified to let his true nature be known to the people around him.
Meanwhile, Liz (played by Hastings) feels constant pressure to fit in and be accepted and validated by her peers. Certainly many young adults in high school relate with that. There’s that ongoing need to be one of the “cool” kids. It doesn’t help that Liz’ former childhood best friend Olivia is one of the cool kids.
Throughout the play, Liz and Ethan are constantly battered by an apparent “superhero” who exists in their imagination. Most of the time, Redfish acts like their best friend, goading them to make decisions that he feels are in their best interest. However, it becomes growingly obvious that Redfish’s plans are more devious. He’s Depression and Anxiety personified in the form of a gaudy superhero in a cheap costume. At first, he’ll occasional slap a fish on Ethan or Liz. The fish, sticking to their clothes, is a constant visual reminder that they carry around these mental burdens.
What struck me most about the play is its earnestness. Being autobiographical, Olson and Hastings wear their hearts on their sleeves almost as clear as the fish stuck to their shirts. Speaking from experience, it’s near impossible not to project yourself into a personal, emotional piece. It hit particularly close to home for me because all of Redfish’s goading, nagging, and little insults were almost exactly – word-for-word – the sort of thoughts that run through my head, even when I’m having a good day. I won’t lie: as Redfish slowly wore then down, battering them with jabs, insults, and insecurities, and dumping buckets of fish on them, I started tearing up. By the play’s conclusion, little stuffed fish littered the stage. Another visual reminder that no matter how much you fight Depression/Anxiety/Redfish, he’s always around, affecting and infecting you.
It’s clear that Olson and Hastings’ script takes care to slowly build up the depression. In fact, Redfish is likable at first. You understand how Liz and Ethan could easily fall under his charismatic spell.
This is partly thanks to Redfish’s actor James MacLean. His Redfish reminded me of different incarnations of the Joker and, oddly enough, Jim Rash’s Stitches character in the movie Sky High. I doubt that’s intentional, but that’s what I saw. That I closely compare MacLean’s performance with Jim Rash is high praise. MacLean’s performance was incredibly animated, constantly upstaging his purposely reserved co-stars. At first, it’s strange that of the three players, it’s the one personifying Depression that’s the most animated and cartoonish. His first on-stage appearance is sudden and hilarious because of the gaudy outfit. However, his over-the-top performance makes his twisted role all the more heartbreaking when this hokey character shows his true colours.
Olson and Hastings actually juggled multiple roles, not just Ethan and Liz. Cleverly using props like a wig and skirt or a backward ballcap and hockey stick, they effortlessly change roles. One minute, Ethan is Ethan. Another minute, he’s wearing a blonde, pig-tailed wig and skirt as Olivia. Or he’s the bro of all bros hockey guy. Even more extraordinary, both performers share these roles. When Liz is interacting with Olivia, it’s Taylor Olson in the wig. When Ethan’s speaking to Olvia, Rachel Hastings does a quick, on-stage change. That they juggle three or four additional roles among the two of them is commendable.
Also interesting is that during all these quick-change roles, both Olson and Hastings still have the fish attached to their clothes. It made me realize that, despite these supporting characters not showing outward signs of mental illness, it’s possible that they, too, have “fish” latched onto them by Redfish. I considered that, if I had written the script, I might have done something with this towards the end. If the play was longer, maybe explore those secondary characters and some of their insecurities as well, with Redfish whispering in their ears. On the other hand, doing so would take focus away from the primary players. So maybe my idea stinks like a piece of cod.
That reminds me of one powerful scene. During the play, Liz seeks her father for advice and empathy. Olson skillfully plays the father’s role via a silhouette screen. Late in the play, Liz – nearly on a breaking point – tries telling her father that she’s having suicidal thoughts. Redfish is screaming at her, saying it’s a stupid idea. When she finally admits it, Redfish suddenly focuses on Liz’ father, revealing that he, too, has similar thoughts. It’s the best moment in the play, especially when the father immediately puts Redfish in his place, telling him he’s not welcome here; with him or his daughter. That moment makes me think my above idea might work if the play had longer running time. However, that it wasn’t overplayed and only used once perhaps works in the narrative’s favour.
I think I’ve said all I want to. I actually have less criticisms than I thought. The performances were solid, with a particularly stand-out performance by MacLean (I’m sure his co-stars would agree). It was undoubtedly hilarious, with great quips, one-liners, and a bit of slapstick. I wasn’t sure if a comedy about Depression could work, but I was happily proven wrong. The play hits so close to home for me that it’s impossible for me to not feel emotionally connected with it. I hope that both Olson and Hastings continue writing, even co-writing together, because I’d love to see what else they have to offer.