The Oakland Tribune, September 21, 1999
by Leslie Katz

"Shotgun Players' new comedy Swimming in the Shallows moves at rapid-fire speed, yet resonates most when, in its later sequences, it takes a moment and slows down.

The young players are appealing in this quirky original one-act play by Adam Bock, who, according to the program notes, is a 'Canadian with a green card' living in San Francisco's Mission District.

...A zesty youthfulness spiked with a heap of irony fuels the show, which, in a series of vignettes, tells the story of three couples: one getting together, one breaking up and one waiting to happen.

All six actors dazzle as they deliver stylized dialogue in Bock's script, an almost nonstop stream of staccato one-liners that flow like a fast-cut music video.

...Fairfield, Fraser, Bales and Vincent are amusing and keep up to speed with Bock's patter, even though some of the jokes aren't all that funny, and the breakneck pace impedes the characters' development and keeps the audience at a distance.

The story kicks in, though, and all of the play's personalities come into focus, when two supporting characters, Bob and The Shark, enter the picture.

Bob, played revealingly by Gene Thompson, first comes across as dorky as his over-the-top Bermuda shorts golf outfit makes him appear. But the script thankfully raises him out of a nightmarish suburban stereotype. The slower-paced scenes when Bob meets Barb's friends - when he confronts Barb and tries to understand her feelings, as well as when he reveals his own emotions - are among the play's most poignant.

Equally endearing are the exchanges between lovelorn Nick and the Shark, a hunky fantasy guy wearing a cardboard fin whom Nick meets at the aquarium where Donna gives tours. John Flanagan plays the whimsical man/shark with the cool of James Dean, and his enchanting encounters with voracious Nick sweetly belie his name.

The play's funniest moments are a couple of slow-motion dream sequences in which Carla Carla and Donna, decked in bridal veils, live out their commitment ceremony, and when Nick's friendly swim with the Shark segues into a hot dance session that looks like a night at Studio 54.

With a sparse set consisting of just a platform, a blue wall as a backdrop and props whose number you could count on two hands, director Kent Nicholson has cleverly staged a show that sneaks up to a satisfying conclusion."

Berkeley Daily Planet, September 22, 1999
John Angell Grant

"Berkeley-based Shotgun Players opened a wonderful and intriguing production Friday in San Francisco of Swimming in the Shallows, an unusual new comedy by San Francisco playwright Adam Bock.

...In an indirect expressionistic way, playwright Bock somehow manages to create...a very thoughtful and touching picture of how human beings become attached, whether to material objects, relationships, or emotional needs, in ways that define their identities as earth-bound spirits, rather than as, say, freer spirits. The effect of this human comedy of errors is both hilarious and moving.

The production is very well directed by Kent Nicholson, newly promoted Associate Artistic Director of the Magic Theatre, with movement assistance from Gillian Chadsey.

As with Shotgun Players at their best, the performances by the show's six cast members are all strong.

Set 'constructivist' Michael Frassinelli and lighting 'illuminarist' Alex Lopez have created a striking, minimalist, nearly bare stage set design, that relies on light and color, more than physical scenery or props. A handful of sand, for example, tossed on the stage in one scene, creates a beach. 'Sound splicer' Richard J. Silberg's ocean surf sounds were a nice touch.", September 28, 1999
Jean Schiffman

"Prepare yourselves: This is going to be an unqualified rave.

Well, OK, maybe not unqualified. Surely someone could have come up with something a little more aesthetically pleasing for the set than what looks like a blue plastic shower curtain hanging on the back wall. And the costumes are not exactly creative either, except for a dorky suburban ensemble and a pair of visually witty bridal veils featured in a very funny slo-mo dream sequence.

Enough kvetching. The East Bay's tiny, feisty Shotgun Players (performing in San Francisco this time) have done it again: Swimming in the Shallows is a tight, beautifully crafted take on looking for love and existential meaning in - well, Rhode Island, actually. It's a 'Seinfeld'-meets-Jules Feiffer kind of thing, with a sharp, satirical edge and a whimsical touch of absurdity. Local writer Adam Bock is a most welcome new theatrical voice hereabouts; I demand to see more of his work immediately.

The players are four friends: Carla Carla (a tough yet mushy Dawn-Elin Fraser) and Donna (Katie Bales, all huge grin and anxious eyes), a lesbian couple dickering endlessly over whether to have a commitment ceremony; Nick (a charmingly vulnerable Liam Vincent), who's gay and can't resist having sex on the first date but longs for a steady guy; and Barb (an expressive Mary Eaton Fairfield), a New Age ninny who read in Reader's Digest that Buddhist monks only own eight material things and has decided that's the path to true happiness. There's also Bob, Barb's terminally clueless husband, and...a very sexy gay shark (Gene Thompson and John Flanagan, respectively, and both terrific). The action plays out in an intermissionless series of crisply choreographed little scenes, beginning with Carla Carla giving Barb a cat dish as a present at the exact moment when Barb's decided to divest herself of all her possessions, and ending happily with (I don't think I'm giving too much away here) a wedding. And it's hilarious and poignant all along the way.

Director Kent Nicholson, who's associate artistic director at the Magic Theatre, has cast Bock's play impeccably and shaped it with a deft hand and wry wit: the timing's flawless and the actors work together like a dream. Cast and director are tuned into all the surprising depths and nuances in Bock's wonderful script. OK, I've run out of superlatives. End of review. Go see it."

San Francisco Bay Times, September 30, 1999
Gene Price

"This brilliant, cleverly staged and directed, and beautifully performed comedy by local playwright Adam Bock explores all the miniscule mental tics, neuroses, and compulsive habits that prevent our achievement of nirvana or even of normal relationships. The Shotgun Players' production is directed by Kent Nicholson, who blessedly relies upon the weight of the script to keep his actors moving. The set and lighting by Michael Frassinelli and Alex Lopez couldn't be simpler or more effective, and Richard J. Silberg's musical cuts of pop and commercial themes are right on.

In a series of fast montages, we are involved in the relationship of Carla Carla (Dawn-Elin Fraser) and Donna (Katie Bales) who plan to wed - but only if Donna cares enough to give up cigarettes. Their best friend Nick (Liam Vincent) is a sexual compulsive who tends to fall in love with his one-night stands as soon as they're out the door. Barb (Mary Eaton Fairfield), who aspires to the Buddhist principle of owning only eight things, is frustrated by husband Bob (Gene Thompson), who buys her a new car and sundry appliances that inexplicably end up in the swimming pool.

Nick falls in love with a dorsal-finned shark (John Flanagan) who swims back and forth in his aquarium tank muttering to himself, 'Watch out for the glass.' Theirs is a tender, sweet affair; and like all the relationships in this wacky series of searches for perfection or connection, it's totally believable. Stylistically akin to Mamet and David Ives, playwright Bock merges the best of both.

Swimming in the Shallows is a don't-miss."

The Write Word, Inc., October 5, 1999
Jeff Garza

"Theatregoers take warning: you'll keep your head safe by paying close attention to the signs I'm about to post along this rocky beach front: DANGER! SHARKS! NO SWIMMING! STAY OUT OF THE WATER! For all the rest of you who insist on wading through Swimming in the Shallows, you might consider bringing along a life preserver to help keep from drowning in this tank of uninspired comedy.

San Francisco playwright Adam Bock has created an offbeat one-act story that follows five characters as they grapple with the minutiae of life's everyday, ordinary decision-making.

...Vincent gives his Nick all the typical tiresome touches of an effeminate gay character, from the finger-crossing to the lispy speech. Flanagan, on the other hand, is certainly a sight to behold as what may very well be the Bay Area theatre's first macho gay shark.

There are definite bright spots in the acting. Giving this show the little life it has is Gene Thompson's Bob, the quintessential whitebread, WASPy husband of Barb (Mary Eaton Fairfield). Bob's grand entrance - accompanied by Iron Butterfly's 'In a Gadda-Da-Vida' - definitely pumps up the audience. And Fairfield's glassy-eyed, open-mouthed depiction of Barb is right on the mark.

...Overall, however, these characters and their relationships are too underdeveloped for us to really care about them. So what if Carla Carla and Donna are going to break up? We have little reason to care that they stay together. Bock could greatly enhance his play by lengthening it to two acts, or by creating more fluidity between the Donna-Nick and Bob-Barb story lines. As it stands, the two stories feel like two separate plays within one short one-act. Rather than working as a cohesive whole, the story feels disjunctive, and the script's potential unrealized. The worst flaw of the evening is that this comedy fails to generate laughs, except some which are unintended.

Shotgun Players director Kent Nicholson has given the production a splashy MTV flavor by making good use of a strobe light and rock music, and the shark metaphor is indeed clever. Unfortunately, playwright Bock has given us Durang without the wit, structure, or dramatic tension. The lifeless dialogue and unexceptional monologues provide us little insight into why we should even bother to traverse life's deeper ends. What is discovered is that this comedy is better left dead in the water."

Back Stage West, October 7 , 1999
Kerry Reid

"Lately I've been struggling with shows that I really want to like better than I actually do. So it's a tremendous relief to encounter Adam Bock's Swimming in the Shallows, a show that hits so many right notes, with so much smarts, winning charm, goofy humor, and flat-out terrific and tender performances that the hardest part of my job here is keeping the hyperbole under control.

Bock, a transplanted Canadian living in San Francisco, has a pitch-perfect sense of the frustrations engendered by the little things in life. Carla Carla (Dawn-Elin Fraser) really wants to marry her girlfiriend Donna (Katie Bales), but Donna's tobacco addiction keeps getting in the way. Meanwhile, Carla Carla's friend Barb (Mary Eaton Fairfield), inspired by a Reader's Digest article about Buddhist monks who only own eight things, has been trying to simplify her material life - much to the consternation of her uptight husband Bob (Gene Thompson). And Donna's friend Nick (Liam Vincent), after a series of one-nighters with men who never call back, has fallen in love with the suave shark at the aquarium (John Flanagan).

What sets Bock's writing apart from other plays that strain to make literal the metaphorical is the natural ease with which he introduces the potentially preposterous situations - and more importantly, the tremendous empathy he has for all his characters. We believe in these people, and root for them - even the stodgy and clueless Bob, as played by Thompson, touches us with his suffering and loss after Barb moves out to a new apartment (unfurnished, naturally).

And Bock's writing, which has more than its share of sharp one-liners, also condenses late 20th-century angst into little gems of insights, as in Barb's anguished observation, 'I have more and more stuff every day, and every day, more and more stuff has me. And all I want is to stop and be quiet and see if I want it.'

Kent Nicholson's staging, combined with Gillian Chadsey's movement choreography, is fresh, inventive, and unfussy. Aside from a triangular platform painted blue and a shiny shower curtain at the rear of the stage, there is no set, and very few props, which makes the ones that are introduced (such as the handful of sand Nick produces from his pocket and throws on the ground to create the beach where he and his shark-crush have their first date) all the more effective. Though all the cast is excellent, I particularly enjoyed Fairfield's conflicted Barb (this actress has some tremendous facial expressions) and Flanagan's simultaneously cocky and insecure shark. But the tightness of the ensemble, and Nicholson's well-paced direction, make this one of the more cohesive casts I've seen in a while.

'It's part of life to have stuff,' argues Bob. 'It's part of life to get attached.' True, but it's rare for me to find a play where I get so attached to the characters onstage, and root for them to end up with the girl - or shark - of their dreams."

Bay Area Reporter, October 7 , 1999

Richard Dodds

"His friends are as dumbfounded as the audience is when Nick tells them he has fallen in love with a shark at the aquarium. But the characters' reassuring reaction turns out to be deceptive. It seems Nick hasn't even met the shark, so it can't very well be love. 'It's a crush,' a friend tells Nick.

Swimming in the Shallows, Adam Bock's new play in the Studio at Theatre Rhino, doesn't take this surrealistic turn until late in the game, but the quirky tone of what has come before makes the unexpected leap a fun one to take. Bock's style is something like Durang with a smile.

The playwright is delightfully adept at finding gentle absurdities in everyday life. He also knows how to write a funny line.

A housewife who's feeling trapped by her possessions has read that Buddhist monks in Thailand allow themselves only eight possessions. 'I've got 48 pieces of Tupperware alone,' she says. 'That's six monks' worth of Tupperware.'

Her unfeeling husband has brought home a rabbit from a hunting trip for her to cook. He ran over it with his car, 'but he says he swerved to hit it, so it counts.'

While Bob and Barb's marriage is hitting the rocks, Donna and Carla Carla are struggling to plan their on-again, off-again commitment ceremony. And the promiscuous Nick is wondering why he can't keep a boyfriend. 'Let's sleep together now, and on the next date wait,' Nick suggests to his latest lover.

The characters weave in and out of each other's stories in a series of short scenes imaginatively staged by Kent Nicholson for the Shotgun Players. In the collection of memorably idiosyncratic characters, the performers are all delightful.

Mary Eaton Fairfield is flawless as Barb, a spaced-out Donna Reed who finds strength in downsizing. Gene Thompson makes a terrific late entrance as Bob, and then sustains the comic edge to the doltish character. Liam Vincent engagingly plays Nick as a bit of a queen. Dawn-Elin Fraser and Katie Bales are on target as the reluctant brides. And John Flanagan is hilarious, and kind of sexy, as the shark.

There are lots of little messages scattered through the 90-minute play, but how they pull together is elusive. If threads feel loose in the end, getting there can be a big grin.", October, 1999

San Francisco welcomes playwright Adam Bock, a recent transplant from the East Coast. With his wonderfully witty and quirkily creative play, Swimming in the Shallows, he has both introduced himself as an incredibly talented writer AND given a lot of sold out houses some provocative entertainment. Highest praise to Shotgun Players for their excellent production.

...Director Kent Nicholson handles the bizarre world of the play with sublime style. His staging is appropriately off-kilter, and yet is always quite revealing.

The audience cheered throughout this surprise-packed, fast-paced, pleasantly unpretentious play.


SF Bay Guardian, September 22, 1999
Brad Rosenstein

'Swimming' in excellence

It's the little shit that makes you crazy, and clearly it's sending the denizens of Swimming in the Shallows right off the deep end. In Twig, R.I., Barb (Mary Eaton Fairfield) aspires to the Buddhist ideal of owning only eight things, but her typical suburban husband Bob (Gene Thompson) is the king of acquisition. Barb's coworker Carla Carla (Dawn-Elin Fraser) is struggling with whether or not to commit to a commitment ceremony with her partner Donna (Katie Bales), whose smoking drives Carla Carla to distraction. Their mutual friend Nick (Liam Vincent) sails from boyfriend to boyfriend in search of love - and just may have found it with an aquarium shark (John Flanagan).

This premiere by San Francisco playwright Adam Bock is a delight, a very, very funny exploration of the minutiae that reveal our deepest selves. Bock never stops to explain, but simply rushes his recognizably whacked situations to extremities that are often as truthful as they are hilarious.

This Shotgun Players production bubbles along under Kent Nicholson's playful direction. Nicholson's presentational staging is an elegant solution to the Theatre Rhino Studio's tiny space, but it makes Bock's work a bit more stylized than it wants to be. After a stilted beginning, however, the play's humanity bursts through and never looks back.

This no-frills production features some exceptional performances, particularly from Fairfield, who, fresh from the dark suburbia of Shotgun's Possum Play, seems to be patenting the role of the Stepford wife gone haywire. Her Barb is a brilliant comic gem, a turbocharged loony whose dam of psychic repression is ready to burst. Vincent also does some of his finest, freest work to date, particularly in his scenes with Flanagan, whose subtle, deadpan shark is flawless. Shallows hiccups here and there, but overall this is one of the best homegrown plays to appear this year - great fun, surprising, a completely winning evening.

'Shopping': in with Flynn

Shopping and F***ing, Mark Ravenhill's celebrated asterisked hit in London and New York, sounds like the ideal dynamic kickoff to Theatre Rhinoceros's new season. This down and dirty play slices into the brutal inequities faced by England's young unemployed, whose pursuit of sex and drugs is driven by both necessity and need, and who exploit and are exploited by those in a position to fulfill their desires.

Ensnared in this web of dependency is ex-broker Mark (Andrew Abelson), who is trying to tear himself away from his sex/drug family, Lulu (Tirza Naramore) and Robbie (Paradox Pollock). When Mark abandons this needy pair, whom he acquired from their previous "owner," Lulu tries to spark her acting career. But her sleazy interviewer Brian (Jason Armstrong) is more interested in Lulu's body than her thespian skills, and he quickly recruits her to unload some drugs. Naturally she and Robbie botch the deal and have to find a way to pay Brian back or else. Mark reappears from rehab but can't kick his old habits, soon hooking up with teenage hustler Gary (Flynn DeMarco) - who may hold the key to the family's collective salvation.

Although the play strains for a hip, gritty lyricism, its in-your-face dramaturgy can't conceal some awfully conventional notions. You know you may be in trouble when a protagonist's name is the same as the author's, and the play echoes with the confessional cadences of a novice playwright. Mark is yet another gay man who can't love, Robbie is an ecstatic spirit whose natural highs only get corrupted by chemistry, and ostensible sex partner Lulu quickly becomes the den mother, carting out endless microwave dinners to her boys. Brian seems like a refugee from a Tarantino movie: rack up one more absurdly pedantic, effetely brutal villain. Even though Gary is also a stereotype, the much abused boy toy searching for Daddy, DeMarco's performance is so sharp and honest it nearly takes things to another level - it's the best thing in the show. Abelson is solid and Pollack shines when he keeps his work specific and controlled, but generally the performances are as erratic as the accents. Director Michael Donald Edwards gives the evening a sleek, punchy rhythm, but he looks in vain for a convincing tone in Ravenhill's uncertain writing. The play's trite thematic concern with how all life-giving connections have become reduced to cash transactions is whipped to death by the time we reach the "surprise" ending. Perhaps predictably, Shopping and F***ing proves nowhere near as provocative as its title.

SF Examiner , September 27, 1999
Robert Hurwitt

"Swimming' is a charmer
Playwright wields a gentle harpoon in quirky and clever social satire

SOMEWHERE in Rhode Island - the town of Twig on the Atlantic coast - a middle-aged housewife is trying to achieve Buddhist serenity by getting rid of all her possessions, eventually including her husband. A lesbian is in crisis over whether to marry her partner even though she smokes. A young gay man with serious commitment problems is falling in love with a large mako shark at the local aquarium. What's more, it appears the shark is just as interested in him.

Adam Bock's Swimming in the Shallows, playing weekends in the basement Studio at Theatre Rhinoceros, is a curious little charmer of a play. It thinks small - ordinary people in a small town with little problems. Its story develops on an everyday level, then abruptly and unapologetically swerves into completely surreal territory. Its social satire is keenly observed but gently applied, and rather sweet.

Bock doesn't hesitate to present his characters as bundles of comic foibles. But it's clear throughout his 85-minute, extended one act that he genuinely likes each and every one of them. And Kent Nicholson's Shotgun Players production at the Rhino Studio is fast, funny and inventive enough to make us like them pretty well, too.

Shotgun on target

Swimming, a new play by Canadian writer Bock - formerly of Rhode Island and now a S.F. resident - isn't one of the seven-year-old Shotgun's more ambitious undertakings. The peripatetic East Bay company has made its growing reputation with a mix of classics (ranging from a staging of the Odyssey to occasional outings with Shakespeare, such as the Romeo and Juliet it's currently presenting in Berkeley's John Hinkle Park) and new work.

But ambitious doesn't always mean better, as Shotgun demonstrated with its world premiere of Rodrigo and Ariel Dorfman's Mascara, a high-profile flop at the Julia Morgan Theater a year ago. Swimming, a rare transbay foray for the company, is slighter but considerably more rewarding. It isn't particularly polished, but it holds together on its own terms well enough. It isn't what you'd call significant or memorable, but it's clever, quirky and entertaining.

Deftly staged

It's also, for the most part, deftly staged by Nicholson, an associate artistic director at the Magic Theatre, and engagingly performed. It opens, simply enough, with two women, co-workers, confiding in each other but talking at cross purposes. Bock is particularly good at portraying the myriad ways in which we half-listen to each other.

Barb (a delightful study in low-key but pervasive mid-life crisis by Mary Eaton Fairfield) is very seriously, if tentatively, explaining her need to rid herself of all the material things she feels are weighing her down, having read in Reader's Digest that Thai Buddist monks only have eight possessions. Fairfield's quietly persistent but muddled, gently decisive performance contains a world of information about a woman grasping at many straws to deal with her vaguely felt, but very real, dissatisfactions.

Carla Carla (a smart, upbeat, emotionally skittish Dawn-Elin Fraser) is trying to sort out her own feelings. Her lover Donna (a breezy, determined but insecure Katie Bales) wants to get married, but Carla Carla isn't sure she can marry a woman who smokes, especially one who says she's quitting but sneaks smokes on the sly.

Their best friend Nick (an earnestly fickle, fey Liam Vincent) has different commitment problems. He falls in love with a new man every few days - until he sees and falls for that shark at the aquarium where Donna works. John Flanagan is simply superb as the shark, gliding back and forth in his tank with a single-minded - if mindless - determination and a predatory blank stare.

Straightforward and surreal

Donna and Carla Carla's story proceeds straightforwardly, through nicely detailed premarital jitters, to the altar. Barb's progress is deftly and predictably portrayed, as her befuddled husband Bob (a goodhearted but clueless Gene Thompson) keeps buying her more things in a misguided effort to save their marriage. It's Nick's story that takes a surreal turn as he and the shark begin to develop a relationship.

Nicholson's staging is a bit rocky in spots, with too many conversations played in profile and an unnecessary, self-consciously clever prologue of actors walking across the stage in a variety of attitudes (haven't we seen this before?). But for the most part he and movement director Gillian Chadsey keep the action flowing at a crisp, quick pace with some brightly inventive slow-motion dream sequences and sharp scene shifts on Michael Frassinelli's simple, attractive single-unit set.

Bock has no intention to venture into any great depths here. But he finds some pretty entertaining minor revelations paddling about in his Shallows.

SF Weekly, September 22, 1999
Joe Mader

Stage Capsule

Adam Bock's comedy of love and danger gets a dream production from the Shotgun Players and director Kent Nicholson. Carla Carla (Dawn-Elin Fraser) and Donna (Katie Bales) are considering a commitment ceremony, but Donna's got to give up smoking first. Donna's best friend Nick (Liam Vincent) sleeps with guys first and falls in love later, after they've left him. Carla Carla's closest pal Barb (Mary Eaton Fairfield) read in Reader's Digest that Thai Buddhist monks allow themselves only eight possessions, and it sounds like a good idea to her -- life with stodgy husband Bob (a perfectly cast Gene Thompson) feels "too heavy." "I've got 48 pieces of Tupperware," she states. "That's enough for six monks." Oh, yeah -- and Nick decides the love of his life is a mako shark (John Flanagan, with a big fin strapped to his back) that resides at the aquarium where Donna works.

Offbeat, yet perfectly timed, Bock's play is a stunner -- full of intricate machinations, quirky dialogue, and monologues worthy of Durang. Characters address one person, interrupt with takes to the audience, and instantly address someone else, who may or may not be onstage. Director Nicholson manages these complicated filigrees expertly. Vincent's Nick flounces on and off the stage, briefly sets the scene, and proceeds to charm the pants off the audience, while Bales astonishes as Donna, making the play's difficult, quicksilver changes look incredibly easy. Fraser and Fairfield deftly contribute to the magic, though Fairfield sometimes lacks the required fluidity. Loopy pop songs crop up everywhere ("I Wanna Be Loved by You," the Wonder Woman TV theme, the B-52's, a James Bond underwater refrain, and more), wonderfully excerpted by sound designer Richard J. Silberg. Alex Lopez's enchanted lighting transforms Michael Frasinelli's simple set into an aquarium, a dump, a supermarket, and, best of all, a beach with fireworks. The Shotgun Players never break the spell Bock's play has cast; they enhance it. (Canadian Bock currently resides in the Mission, making him one of the best playwrights in the Bay Area.) In this show, love is risky, delirious, and utterly charming. Swimming in the Shallows causes a comic rapture of the deep.