By Martin Morse Wooster: As Anton Ego told us in Ratatouille, the goal of a critic today is to be the first person to offer praise to a rising artist. It’s not the tenth novel that deserves our attention but the first or second. In the theatre, the people who need the most attention are the ones who are being established, not the ones that build on earlier successes.
So I’m happy to report that. Matthew Aldwin McGee, author, star, and chief puppeteer of Under the Sea with Dredgie McGee. Is a talented guy who has a great deal of potential. You should be watching him.
McGee has a website, https://www.mattamagical.com/ which describes the things he does. But what most impressed me about his play, Under the Sea With Dredgie McGee, is his skill at puppetry. He’s gotten two grants from the Jim Henson Foundation, which gives grants to talented puppeteers, and is working on a film scheduled to be screened as part of “Handmade Puppet Dreams,” a series of short independent films curated by Jim Henson’s daughter, Heather Henson. https://www.handmadepuppetdreams.com/
Some of the puppets In McGee’s play are Muppet-like. Remember Beaker, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s assistant? Well, there’s a character here who will remind you of him. But McGee’s puppets are original, and only have traces of Muppetry in them.
I should note that I saw McGee’s play at 1st Stage, which is a very good small theatre located in a strip mall about 15 miles west of downtown Washington in an area that’s affluent enough to have a Mercedes-Benz dealership and thrifty enough to have a Wal-Mart. They’re mostly medium to upper highbrow (Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Carson McCullers) and are the last theatre in Washington I’d expect would perform silly puppet shows, but they did and I’m glad they gave McGee their stage.
Dredgie McGee is at the bottom of the sea and has two problems: he’s lost his legs, and he’s dead. So what can he do? Run a variety show!
It’s hard to find talent at the bottom of the sea. Captain Nemo was to start but he was off somewhere, so Fragmo, the classically trained ship worm, replaced him. Fragmo knows Shakespeare—but he’s a worm! So he gets cuts off from his recitations. “They wouldn’t do this to Patrick Stewart!” the worm complains.
So what else is in the show? There’s one segment about reading messages from bottles, including one from a titled blowhard who was trapped on an island with sentient bananas who were holding him hostage until they could find some ice cream and chocolate sauce. There is Neptune, who for some reason is Australian, and the Sirens, who are a girl group of singers. Finally, there is Hexxalina, a mermaid with anger management issues who has learned to paint by overdosing on Bob Ross tapes, which just make her angrier.
Finally at the bottom of the ocean people enjoy really bad puns. As in: why do Norwegian ships have barcodes? So they can scan the navy in!
If the first act was sublimely ridiculous comedy the second act was more dramatic as it dealt with McGee trying to recover his legs and, possibly his soul. Although this touches on deep themes, McGee is a far better comedian than he is a dramatist. I’d cut ten minutes out of the second act which got pretty draggy.
A word about the puppetry. There was a lot of it, but I give credit to whoever designed a device that kept Hexxalina moving her legs as if she was swimming, which consisted of one person holding the machine and another constantly cranking a device so that her legs were constantly moving. I think the six members of the ensemble were doing puppetry when not on stage, so take a bow, Suzy Alden, Linda Bard, Natalie Cutcher, Ezinne Elele, Lee Gerstenhaber, and Jacob Yeh.
I think Matthew McGee still has more development as an artist, but he has a great deal of talent and ability and I think—and hope—we will be hearing more from him in the future.
I am so happy when I read reviews of live theater, even if it is somewhere I won’t get to see it. Same reaction as reading about Broadway shows. I know they are out there, and they may be done somewhere near me sometime.