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{Wistfully recalling past glory} The Water Crawlers
By Geoff Kavanagh
Directed by Dean Gabourie
Starring David Fox, Greg Kramer, Catherine McNally and Elizabeth Shepherd
Playing at Buddies in Bad Times, Mar 14-April 9, 2000
Review by Charles Blaquière

Swimming through weeds

"The Water Crawlers" seemed promising, with its out-of-the-ordinary subject matter and press reports of a lavish set. Certainly, as soon as you arrive, you're struck by the elaborate setup. Designed to evoke the dreary beachfront of Etobicoke's motel strip, it features a 45-foot wide area covered in water.

The play revolves around Billy and Alicia Musgrave, '50s marathon swimmers turned low-rent hoteliers; daughter Marilyn; and Martin, a Bitter Gay Man With AIDS TM. The elders' star long tarnished, they now tend to a clientele of junkies and hookers in their derelict lakeside motel. They typically spend long stretches reminiscing about past glories, in standard-issue theatre fashion.

The subject matter is refreshing; the author adeptly evokes the swimmer's mindset and milieu. Billy, both trying to recapture past glory and win a ticket to freedom from this hellhole, trains to win a race. His wife Alicia, awash in nostalgic anecdotes and unable to enter the water, coaches as best she can from the shore. Martin is enlisted to follow Billy along, discovering in the process an unexpected energy; it's the first chance in a long time he's had to extricate himself from his dead lover's memory and the miasma of AIDS.

Daughter Marilyn mostly serves to introduce the playwright's incongruous self-indulgences: prancing about for a week in the soiled prom dress of a raped teen, entertaining fantasies of nighttime rape at the front desk, crazily throwing trophy effigies in the syringe-infested waters of Lake Ontario.

Stephan Droege's set, half-covered in a 4-inch deep layer of water, is used to its fullest extent, effectively conveying the paralyzing environment and facilitating often-realistic portrayals of grief, nostalgia, dejection. Actors spend ample time splashing about, to the embarrassed half-smiles of front-row theatregoers.

And they are a talented bunch, each making the best with what they are given. David Fox (Billy) and Elizabeth Shepherd (Alicia) are seasoned performers who bring credible weariness to these forgotten champions. Catherine McNally (Marilyn), condemned to be a buffer character others bounce off of, bravely does her best despite the silliness she's asked to perform. Greg Kramer (Martin) has the best quips throughout the piece, and spits them out with élan. The man seems to relish his role.

Here we have capable actors, an audacious set, and unusual subject matter -- it's a pity the play is so plodding. What went wrong? Perhaps it's the lacklustre storyline, all theatrics and little development, with ludicrous elements and overblown monologues thrown in haphazardly. I wasn't the only one who wanted to end this misery and slip out at intermission; I overheard a fellow spectator remark, "This is the reason I stopped going to the theatre."

Late in the play, when Billy remembers learning how to withstand currents by swimming through weeds that slow him down, I realized that's what the audience had been enduring all night long: a marathon to see whether things would finally pick up. Watching this play is like swimming through weeds. By the time something finally happens (a freezing Billy and Martin find themselves stranded on a booey in the middle of an impossibly foggy night), I found myself unable to care anymore.

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