Reviewed by Amber M. Dillard
Under the sea is where you want to be! Opening night for Flint Repertory Theatre’s partnership with CollaborationTown on their co-production of The Riddle of the Trilobiteswas petite but full of fun. This musical centers around two young trilobites, Aphra and Judomiah, coming into their own after their first molting ceremony. This world premiere puppet musical was amusing for all ages and at just ninety minutes is perfect for the whole family.
You might be asking yourself, what is a trilobite? Trilobites were a prehistoric invertebrate that dominated the ocean floor millions of years ago and were one of the most successful early animals. Trilobites left an extensive fossil record with some thousands of different known species; however, a few mysteries still exist. This is where our story is centered – on an ancient riddle that can only be solved by a trilobite with one-of-a-kind markings. Aphra, played by Sifiso Mabena, happens to be this chosen trilobite. Mabena moves expertly about the stage and gives our young heroine grace, humility, and kindness for all creatures. The elders of her people, including Aphra’s grandmother, Galla, share with her her newfound destiny. Grandmother Galla is played by actress Mia Pak, who brings a dominant yet playful energy to the character. Luckily, Aphra does not have to solve this riddle on her own as she is joined by her most neurotic friend, Judomiah, played by Richard Saudek. Saudek brings so much range to his character that we can’t help but go along on his emotional journey.
Aphra is also joined on her journey by a host of other characters including an opabinia named Calliope, played by Julia Rose Duray. Duray is youthful, energetic, and confident in her role as the more experienced sea explorer of the group. Together these three set out to solve the ancient riddle. Of course the story would not be complete without a few bumps along the way, including meeting the oldest and largest of the trilobites – Isotelus Rex, played by Zach Fike Hodges. Mr. Hodges brings depth and polish to each of the characters that he plays throughout the production, and this reviewer knows that he personally brought one little girl a special amount of joy as Josh, the fish.
Another standout, multi-faceted persona is that of Hai, the fish that Aphra befriends despite warnings from the elders, played by Phillip Taratula. In this role Taratula is vulnerable and soft-spoken creating some tender moments in the show that had several audience members tearing up. All of Mr. Taratula’s characters Friday night were extremely well executed and showed his incredible range of talent.
Kudos must go to the scenic designer, Deb O, for transforming the REP into an underwater wonderland made of plastic which moved and swayed and gave just the perfect amount of magic to this story. The plastic floor was loud at times, but as the run continues it should lessen and become less noticeable. Another spectacular reason that this show works so well is that it is staged expertly by director Lee Sunday Evans for the thrust stage of the Elgood Theater. I cannot forget to mention that this show is billed as a puppet musical, however, the work of the actors, director, and designers work so flawlessly together it’s easy to forget that you are watching puppets. The puppets themselves are crafted marvelously and the actors move them perfectly to create nothing short of magic. Microphones are always an issue and at times the accompaniment was a bit too loud, but the music is catchy, clever, and had many audience members dancing in their seats. The writers of this musical must also not go unmentioned as the dialogue is witty, researched-based yet full of puns. Lots of laughs are had by all ages.
Riddle of the Trilobites plays until March 10 at the Flint Repertory Theatre, 1220 E. Kearsley St. Flint, MI., but you won’t want to say goodbye to this show, only “See you later!” For more information and tickets contact the box office at 810-237-7333 or online at FlintRep.org