Charlie Daniels wrote “When The Devil Came Down To Georgia” to fill the last track of an album he was recording. It was about a young mountain boy who was pretty good at playing the fiddle. He believed himself to be so good that there wasn’t anybody who could beat him. So he plays for the devil’s golden fiddle, and just about everybody knows how that turned out.
What happens when someone believes themselves to be the best at something, say bass fishing, and competition is what their whole life is about? Do they take any challenge, even if the stakes are the most they have ever encountered? Do they take the bait? J.J. Williams did, and it became an adventure of a lifetime amid a Bass fishing tournament.
As one of the plays in the 2023 FRIGID Fringe Festival, Kingfish by Lane McLeod Jackson is a short play that is large in enjoyment. It covers a lot of ground in its presentation of a duel between personalities on a small boat on Lake Champlain. It is about the clash between a brash, arrogant, egocentric expert at catching bass and an obese, slovenly, rude and possibly stupid amateur fisherman.
J.J. Williams, played perfectly by Tyler Riley (who also directed), is the best bass fisherman anyone could ever know, and he will be the first to tell you. He makes his living fishing in bass tournaments, where various fishing equipment companies sponsor him. He is all about fishing and, famously, has a bad temper when pushed too far. This particular tournament is a Pro-Am event where a lottery determines all the teams. J.J. is paired with an amateur named Billy-Bob, who is more than he appears, the nature of which is skillfully executed by playwright Jackson.
The play starts with Billy-Bob relieving himself off the back of the boat while J.J. sits towards the front, trying not to be bothered by what is happening. What then transpires between the two is a contest of wills, with Billy-Bob verbally poking at J.J. and he responding with increasing irritation. Finally, it all comes to a head with J.J. attacking Billy-Bob not once but twice, the second time with a knife. When nothing happens to Billy-Bob, the truth is revealed as Billy-Bob reveals himself as Scratch, the devil incarnate, with horns and hooves.
J.J. has something that Scratch wants back, but he cannot take it directly. A contest is proposed; whoever catches the most fish wins, and the stake is a soul against salvation. The rules are set, and the match begins. The back-and-forth between J.J. and Scratch is beautifully done, with some clever dialogue exploring what it means to be the best.
Jackson’s portrayal of the devil is a terrific piece of acting with his move from an obnoxious man to a rage-filled evil entity and back again within a couple of breaths. Riley’s characterization is equally as beautifully done as we see his transition from an emotionally conflicted, angry man into someone with a calmer, more compassionate nature.
The set is a bare-bones representation of a boat with fishing gear, picnic coolers, and fish made from paper. The lighting is basic, given the nature of the venue, a small basement theater. It is the nature of Fringe Festival productions since it is a chance for playwrights and actors to showcase their work with very tight budgets. None of these things matter with Kingfish since the play and performances are strong enough to make the reality of the set of no great importance. If you like short, well-written, thought-provoking, dark comedy, Kingfish will be a good choice. And if this is representative of the plays in the festival, there should be more good work to be found.
Kingfish (through March 5, 2023)
2023 FRIGID Fringe Festival
Under St. Marks, 94 Saint Marks Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.frigid.nyc/event/6897:325/
Running time: 50 minutes without an intermission