While at Starbucks with a friend the other day, I stumbled across 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” in the play is a superhero. A play combining depression and superheroes? It’s like this thing was made for me. As luck would have it, I managed to see 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 at 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 ever intend.
Much like my love for superheroes, I make it no secret that I struggle with depression. Only a few days ago, I finally 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 for hours on end.
There are things about my life these days that I plan on making separate posts about. One has a current 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 in my hands before I write that. Stay tuned for that, though, because I’ve actually reworked the decade-old story, so it’ll be reworked AND reposted!
In the meantime: Redfish.
Directed by Tessa Mendel, Redfish is co-written and co-stars Taylor Olson and Rachel Hastings. Redfish is a semi-autobiographical play about two young people who both struggle with depression, insecurities, and self-doubt within middle school and high school settings. All their doubt and insecurities are personified by the charismatic, influential Redfish.
Olson primarily plays the role of Ethan, a promising hockey player with hopes of hitting the big leagues, who struggles with living up to the expectations put on by himself especially his peers. However, he doesn’t just 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 – if not most – young adults in high school can relate with that. There’s that ongoing need to be one of the “cool” kids. It certainly doesn’t help when Liz’ former childhood best friend Olivia is one of those cool kids.
All through the play, though, both main characters are constantly battered by an apparent “superhero,” who only exists in their heads. At first – and certainly most of the time – Redfish acts like their best friend, goading them on 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 wearing 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 and uncertainty.
What struck me most about the play is how earnest and genuine it is. Being so 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 such a personal, emotional piece work. 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 constantly 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 not just jabs, insults, and insecurities, but also literally dumping buckets of fish on them, I started tearing up. By the play’s conclusion, the stage was littered with little, fake stuffed fish. 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, and in fact, Redfish is pretty likable at first. You understand how Liz and Ethan easily fall under his charismatic spell.
This is partly in thanks to Redfish’s actor James MacLean. His Redfish is a combination of various incarnations of the Joker and, oddly enough, Jim Rash in his role as Stitches 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. The moment he first appears on stage is sudden and hilarious because of the gaudy outfit. However, his over-the-top performance makes his twisted role in the play all the more heartbreaking when this jokey, hokey character shows his true colours.
It must also be said that the two actors actually juggled multiple roles, not just Ethan and Liz. In a clever use of a few props like a wig and skirt or a backward ballcap and hockey stick, they both 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 whose name escapes me. 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 the two main actors juggle another three or four roles among the two of them is incredibly commendable.
What I found doubly 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 any 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 have taken focus away from the primary players. So perhaps my idea stinks like a piece of cod.
That reminds me of one powerful scene. In a handful of moments during the play, Liz seeks her father for advice and empathy. This is played skillfully by Olson via an on-stage silhouette screen. At one moment late in the play, Liz – nearly on a breaking point – tries to tell her father that she’s having suicidal thoughts. Redfish is screaming at her, telling her it’s a stupid idea to do that. When she finally admits it, suddenly Redfish’s focus turns to her father, revealing that he, too, has similar thoughts. It’s probably 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. It’s moments like that that make me think my above idea might have worked if the play had had more time to play with. However, that it wasn’t overplayed and only used once perhaps works in the narrative’s favour.
I’m at a point now where I think I’ve said all I want to. I actually have less criticisms for the play than I thought. All the performances were solid, with a particularly stand-out performance by MacLean (which I’m sure his co-stars would agree). It was undoubtedly hilarious, with many 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 in store for the future.