Nate Brantley, Charlotte Meeley, Bea Friesen, & Sophia Retone in The Selke Wife. Photo: CTC
The Selkie Wife
Adapted from the folktale by the directors, cast, and community partners
Directed by Heather Burns
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The myth of the selkie is a tidy thumbnail of the patriarchy. A man steals a selkie’s seal pelt to force her to live as his wife, enslaving her as a human and cutting her off from her own kind forever. Director Heather Burns ponders this in her thoughtful program notes and answers the question by devising a fresh take on the legend in collaboration with her cast and community partners.
And for the part of the population who cannot abide changing any aspect of myth and folklore in the name of tradition, Burns offers this response:
“The most sacred part of folklore is that it is alive as an artform. Forcing folklore into verbatim is the opposite of its origin.”
A wise observation that gives her troupe and us permission to receive this new story without judgment.
Of course, judgment is my business, but I kind of loved The Selkie Wife. Despite some awkwardness in the performances, it is a winning mix of the silly and the lyrical, the prosaic and the profound.
Fiona (Chloe Fitch) lives with her daughters and a son, Ridley (Nate Brantley) who is the most successful fisherman on the island. At an annual community festival, three selkies (Bea Friesen, Sophia Retone, & Charlotte Meeley) remove their pelts and join the festivities in human form. One names Saoirse (Meeley) becomes stranded when she cannot find her pelt and begins to fall in love with Ridley.
Some of the delivery of dialogue was stilted, but I loved the way the selkies were presented as mischievous and nearly child-like in their joy. The three performers clearly put the work in on movement but mostly just bring an infectious sense of fun and inhibition to the stage that goes a long way.
Several ensemble members make the most of their individual moments in telling the story, and among the non-selkie characters, Charlotte Meeley makes for a lively and engaging title character, and the most powerful moments illustrate the connection between her and Ridley’s mother. I found Chloe Fitch to have an easy authority as the mother, Fiona, communicating an adult matriarch that separates her from the actors playing her children even though are all close to the same age. The impact is helped immeasurably by the costume work from Lindsay Chamberllin, who fills the range of full rustic skirts with subtle but important character detail.
Amy Davis is credited as Costume Specialist and I will assume that their work was on the selkie costumes, soft, snuggly constructions that I am willing to bet contributed mightily to that child-like quality in the performances.
Burns has other valuable design work from Gerry Kean’s open and colorful setting and lights and the fiber art of Aletia Robey on the stage representing the knotted rope craft work of the community, but most crucially she has music by Jacqui Blue that does the most to cast a spell, as background, accompaniment to onstage dances, or in the song “Where (Dinna Ken)” sung by Blue herself.
If the conclusion fashioned here seems slightly anti-climactic, it certainly accomplishes Burn’s goals and gives Saoirse agency where there was previously none. It also does so without robbing Ridley of his integrity. He may be wrong in his desire but he is not evil, just representative of the coventional masculine traditions; maintaining control even when the intention is loving and “benign” and the central assumption that men always know best. The Selkie Wife turns the misogynistic myth on its head so that it becomes instead an attack on the patriarchy.
The Selkie Wife
November 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 7 19 @ 7:30 pm
November 12, & 19 @ 2:00 pm
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.