Review: "The Eel Catchers" a new play by Bennett Ayres

July 26, 2011
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More and more I’ve come to believe that ideas themselves aren’t good or bad. How those ideas are made manifest is what matters.

Most recent case in point: “The Eel Catchers,” a new play by Bennett Ayres, offered through Aug. 7 at Theatre on the Square (although, to be clear, this isn’t a TOTS production).

The play is anchored in an historic anecdote that could lead to a very bad play: A 25-year-old Julius Caesar was captured by pirates in 75 B.C.

But while the subject lends itself to a broad range of approaches—from Shakespearean drama to Monty Python-ish spoofery—the playwright makes an ingenious and  gutsy move: He crafts a sincere, seedy drama in the Jim Thompson style (hardboiled stories about tough-but-vulnerable crooks whose human frailties get in the way of their “perfect” crimes).

 I’d be surprised to hear that the playwright isn’t well schooled in Thompson’s “After Dark, My Sweet,” another primarily three-character powder keg of a tale about a kidnapping gone bad.  

In Ayres’ taut drama, tough smuggler Lenckos and his alcoholic younger brother Ahmet nab the future Roman ruler with the help of an escaped slave/possible fortune teller, whose nickname I won’t repeat here. The action begins after the crime, in the waiting period as the trio jockey for control over the situation and each other.  I’ll say no more about the story. Why spoil a good thing?

I will say, though, that Ayres is well served by local leading men Doug Johnson (recall his George W. Bush in the Phoenix Theatre’s “Stuff Happens”) and Ben Tebbe (fresh from the lead in the Phoenix’ “Avenue Q”). Both create living, breathing flawed and confused men without the ironic detachment that could kill the drama. Sincerity is key to this kind of material. We have to believe that any mistake can be fatal. And I did.

There are a few places where the narrative seems to be treading water. And I’m not convinced that the introduction of a fourth character late in the 75-minute, intermission-less play is really necessary. But with director James Tillett, actress Erin Cohenour (more committed and stronger here than any other time I’ve seen her) and smart, simple stage design, the ad-hoc “The Eel Catchers” company has crafted an edge-of-the-seat noir drama that was one of my most surprising theatergoing pleasures in recent memory. Tickets are only $12. 

For information on the show, click here.

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  • Pedantry
    "Taut" drama, not "taught." He's a playwrite, not a teacher; it's tense, not a lesson.
  • Loved "Eel Catcher"
    I have to agree with Mr. Harry. Having been fortunate enough to be in the audience for the premiere of Mr. Ayer's play, I found it to be seat of you pants thrilling in addition to bringing a comedic thread to the material.
    Being a fan of all theater, this is one gem that I would highly recommend.

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