By Alex Miller
There’s a keyboard‑and‑mic setup, which is the freshest thing I’ve seen in a solo play. A beautiful panoply of memories from a 9mm reel is projected onto a screen. We hear a lively ditty and our star Beverley Elliott appears, her beautiful curly hair a vibrant red. She sings, “Green grass, blue sky, yellow corn grows a mile high. Everyone helps everyone, we don’t stop until the chores are done.” I must tip my hat to projection designer Jordan Lloyd Watkins for how creatively he shapes and connects the images, which seem both manufactured and authentic. His is the kind of skill that one can only dream of; indeed, one of a kind.
A late 50s‑era turquoise truck is juxtaposed with cows and chickens, as Ms. Elliott tells us she was five years old in 1965. She hates that her family’s farm is getting sold.
Her storytelling abilities are immediately remarkable. Rarely have I seen someone so comfortable with her words and gestures, painting a more vivid vision than even the projector itself is.
“My uncle looks like he dislikes alcohol, ‘cause he scrunches up his face every time he takes a sip,” she imitates, producing a precise and evocative impression.
She mentions that she’s not sure whether her uncle—whom her five‑year old self imagines to be a very old man at 70—actually likes her. After pouring too much food into her goldfish’s bowl, she does everything she can to get out the extra flakes. Eventually she resorts to dabbing her finger and picking up the excess with it. But she regrets that as soon as her uncle tells her, “Fish food will kill ya!” When she goes to bed that night, she hopes that her imminent death will be quick and painless.
So goes a play that draws you in from the very beginning. From Ms. Elliott’s first embarrassing moment in a classroom full of farm kids (she wets herself when she, a five‑year‑old, is tasked with doing arithmetic on the board) to her near‑death experience of nearly drowning at Boiler Beach, the site of the Erie Belle disaster, Ms. Elliott paints the beauty and the tragedy of her Ontario childhood.
Given Ms. Elliott’s storytelling power, and her wonderful depictions of life and love and laughter, it was a bit disheartening that the show offered only two brief glimpses into her adulthood. I would have loved to see her at various points throughout her life. However, life is never what you expect. Although that would have been a treat, director Lynna Goldhar Smith still surprised me in the best ways possible.
One of the United Solo Theatre Festival’s final shows, “Sink or Swim” is a fitting end to a festival that has showcased more talent than one can fit in a New York City subway train. This 75‑minute extravaganza more than evokes a kind of life that many of us will never experience, one that many assume is tame. Ms. Elliott’s story truly disproves that notion. Hers is a story that has to be seen to be believed.
“Sink or Swim”
Written and Performed by Beverley Elliott
Nov. 13 at 9pm, Nov. 17 at 2pm
Director: Lynna Goldhar Smith
Musical Director: Bill Costin
Projection Design: Jordan Lloyd Watkins
Sound & Lighting: Chris Nowland
Photo: courtesy of the Festival
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.