The house lights went out and foot stomps rolled like thunder through Perseverance Theatre.
Upon its conclusion, “Devilfish,” the opening production of the theater’s 41st season, drew a response a lot different than the typical ovations that punctuate plays at the Douglas Island theater. That makes sense because the play that’s a blend of destruction myth, origin story and prehistoric legend is a dramatic departure from just about anything else.
The play’s virtues absolutely earned the loud, enthusiastic response, but the audience was also well-primed to deliver it.
Before the show started in earnest, Lyle James, one of the choreographers for “Devilfish” introduced an ear worm of a blueberry picking song that is featured throughout the play and explained in Tlingit culture approval and connection is expressed through foot stomps rather than applause.
Also ahead of the opening night performance, playwright Vera Starbard spoke names of and gave gifts to people she said were essential to the long journey that took “Devilfish” from a book to a six-hour draft to a lean two-hour-and-change show.
Her emotional investment was obvious, and it’s hard to divorce the material from the passion poured into the show.
However, artistic investment and laudable goals aside, “Devilfish” earned thunderous stomping on its merits as a play.
It’s a satisfying and enjoyable narrative with big ambitions, and it pulls it all off.
That’s especially impressive because the play, which tells a story spanning years and features multiple mythic characters, could have been a slog. Through creative use of flashbacks, guilt-wracked dream sequences and montage-like fastforwards “Devilfish” tells an epic story without becoming unwieldy. It’s snappy enough that it absolutely could be a modern Disney princess story with next to no reworking.
“Devilfish” is also a creative introduction to aspects of Tlingit culture — wedding traditions, halibut hooks, memorial rites and more — without becoming totally didactic since there’s a natural audience analog in Aanteinatu (Erin Tripp).
Since Aanteinatu is the lone survivor of a sea monster attack on her village, her natural outsider status and adolescent age give exposition a natural reason to flow.
All that world building does mean “Devilfish” moves more slowly in its first half than its second half, but the first half of the play does include the culling of a village by a vengeful octopus in a hypnotic and kabuki-like sequence of artful slaughter. It also concludes with a memorable and interactive wedding scene.
While the first half of “Devilfish” essentially introduces, a stove, a pot and dial set to boil, the second half of the play is all about that pot boiling over and the cleanup that follows.
It also featured my favorite sequence in the show, which laid out the central brewing conflict in an utterly captivating way. For an absolute knockout few-minute stretch, halibut fishing is communicated via a mesmerizing, semi-comic dance routine that underscores all of the play’s major character motifs while telling its own neat story. I gushed about it on the way home, and it still stands out to me as an excellently composed and understated bit of storytelling.
In addition to that highlight, Act 2 also features the play’s most comic moments and some tragic twists.
Aanteinatu’s manically insecure brother-in-law, Tundataan (Kenny Ramos), and sardonic father-in-law, Wakeesh (Skyler Ray-Benson Davis), earned some of the show’s loudest laughs through their depictions of men at very different stages in their development.
Ramos’ energy and timing went a long way in making a character whose defining character traits are vanity and jealousy likeable and entertaining.
The second half of “Devilfish” also includes Aanteinatu’s attempt to avenge the wrongs of the titular sea monster. It does not go particularly well, and leads to some of the play’s heaviest moments.
It also introduces a last-second reveal that likely felt more connected to the narrative in earlier, longer drafts of the story but was a little jarring for me. That’s absolutely picking nits since it also adds extra poignancy to the play, but in a show that communicates so much so deftly, it stood out.
Despite the wobbles, “Devilfish” absolutely sticks its landing — hence the massive crowd reaction.
It’s an extremely ambitious play that could have been an over-stuffed turkey and instead comes to an earned conclusion after an entertaining and informative run.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.