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Dolphins and Sharks

This company is like a vicious shark preying on everything in the ocean. Dophins swim in groups to avoid shark attacks. — Ms. Amen, the constant customer of Harlem Office in James Anthony Tyler's Dolphins and Sharks
Dolphins And Sharks
Left: Chinaza Uche and Pernell Walker (Photo: Monique Carboni)
James Anthony Tyler's Dolphins and Sharks is at once an old-fashioned chronicle of office intrigue and an up-to-the-minute picture of conditions at the lower end of the urban food chain.

Harlem Office, the establishment in which Tyler's play takes place, is an upper Manhattan copy shop where management demands ever greater productivity while imposing more and more measures of frugality. Mr. Timmons, the absentee proprietor (and an off-stage character) has been grooming Xiomara (Flor De Liz Perez) to fill a managerial vacancy. Once promoted, Xiomara finds her relationships with co-workers transformed in ways she hasn't foreseen. Her long-time ally Isabel (Pernell Walker), who has applied for management posts without success, is resentful and passive-aggressive. Danilo (Cesar J. Rosado), the janitor, and Yusuf ((Chinaza Uche), a junior sales associate, scoff at taking orders from someone they're accustomed to viewing as a peer.

Walker, Perez, and Uche — cast, respectively, as African-American and Latina women and a Nigerian-American man — shoulder the heaviest acting burdens, and they do so with aplomb. As their characters brave a succession of hard knocks (both in the office and outside), the actors explore a wide spectrum of emotional responses—, from collegiality to belligerence— convincingly and with insight.

The play's roles, as written by Tyler, are distinctive and minutely observed; and, under Charlotte Brathwaite's sensitive direction, the superb cast — which also includes Rosado and Tina Fabrique as Mrs. Amen, the office's relentless customer — makes quite a meal on what the author has given them.

Having missed out on the education she craved, Perez's Xiomara is determined to be a success at Harlem Office; yet she longs to be liked or, rather, loved. Yusuf, a recent New York University graduate, views his job at Harlem Office as an unjust detour from grander career aspirations. Uche makes palpable his character's diminishing momentum as he struggles along, weighed down by educational debt and disillusionment.

In the production's most riveting performance, Walker plays a talented soul, resigned to little more than subsistence, hiding her pain under a carapace of braggadocio. Rankled by racial and gender prejudice, Walker's Isabel is angry (justifiably so), mercurial, and frequently on the verge of imperiling her family's security with a "take this job and shove it" tantrum.

Tyler's dialogue crackles with street credibility; and the events of the play are generally believable. Despite its strengths, though, the script is overlong. Parts of the twisty plot are predictable; and, in the second act, bickering among the co-workers becomes wearisomely repetitive. < br>
Brathwaite has staged Dolphins and Sharks as a semi-immersive event. The performers don't interact with audience members; but the environment created by scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg is so detailed and realistic and playgoers are so close to the action that the production seems site-specific. (Ginsberg's intriguingly banal set includes a temperamental photocopy machine that plays such a significant part in the proceedings that it qualifies as a character in Tyler's narrative.)

The activity on stage toggles between the naturalistic episodes unfolding beneath the fluorescent lights of Harlem Office and brief sound-and-light shows featuring strobes and thumpy music. During the wordless interludes, the five cast members perform Brechtian pantomimes that depict field hands picking cotton and prisoners on a chain gang.

The eye-popping entr'acts are the work of Kent Barrett (lighting), Justin Hicks (sound and music), and Andrew Schneider (video), as well as Brathwaite. The imagery of the projections, which appear behind and above the actors, evokes labor history and the struggle for civil rights in the United States from the nineteenth century to now. The effect is a social-studies lesson delivered at a discotheque. By the middle of the second act, a spectator may find the colorful agitprop of these rowdy, high-tech olios a relief from the dispiriting drama and repetitious wrangling of Tyler's script.

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Dolphins and Sharks by James Anthony Tyler
Director: Charlotte Brathwaite
Cast: Tina Fabrique (Amenze Amen); Flor De Liz Perez (Xiomara Yepez); Cesar J. Rosado (Danilo Martinez); (Hayley); Chinaza Uche (Yusuf Nwachukwu); Pernell Walker (Isabel Peters)
Set Designer: Marsha Ginsberg
Costume Designer: Zulema Griffin
Lighting Designer: Kent Barrett
Sound Designer: Justin Hicks
Video Designer: Andrew Schneider
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission
Presented by Labyrinth Theater Company
Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank Street

>From 2/9/17; opened 3/1/17; closing 3/19/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at February 26th press performance<

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