foolsFURY and Sheila Callaghan’s “Port Out, Starboard Home” at La MaMa
“I grabbed a bunch of wet naps,” is the abstract flirtation of one goofily shy guest to another on the suspect spiritual cruise of foolsFURY’s Port Out, Starboard Home (POSH) which opened at La MaMa last week. “I like clean hands on myself and other people,” is the jittery response among the many amusing, tragic, and inchoate movements on view in the new work written by Sheila Callaghan with the Bay Area performance group, helmed by Ben Yalom, and developed collaboratively over four years.
The retreat impulse (Callaghan’s “lets go on a cruise”) wryly reflects the routine necessity for theater artists and strands it at sea. Playing with documentary social praxis and method acting, the company actually embarked together for five days to sponge source material; improvising in situ. Callaghan then pastiched, expanded, and transformed their diary entries into an antic, eerie, buoyant and surreal slice of life posing a series of questions into the US enlightenment industry. How does the site of purchasable spiritual transformation depend upon othering, exploitation, and appropriation and who/what is exoticized and “eaten” in order to facilitate the Western liberal’s experience of dis-alienation and healing? Does the therapeutic even take place for the privileged consumer? If not commodified, would we recognize transcendence if we saw it?
Actors greet us polyglottally, intoning backstory in crew-member chorus, the theater of the ship gradually breaking up to form “Group 8.” We observe the fantasies, vulnerabilities, and quirks of this six-passenger community as they navigate what we come to understand is an unadvertised luxury journey offering a secret purification ritual as its keystone. Johnny O (Brian Livingston) plays the luxuriously mustachioed captain-cum-master-of-ceremonies while his seer-like partner Maya (Amy Prosser) serenely haunts the decks caring for an unseen baby and awakening the curiosity of the guests.
We are first introduced to Gary (Calder Shilling) who puppyish-ly quotes movies with satisfied fist pumps and illustrates his anxiety after a coup de théâtre food-fight-turned-orgy with, “everyone’s just eating, no one’s afraid of anything.” Through closeted middle age swagger, Blake (Josiah Polhemus) emits the patronizing pick up line, “I love international people,” following up with “I’m desperate and I don’t wanna die.” Daria (Jessica Unker), the youngest at 19, reads Ishmael, once photographed her analyst father’s unconscious genitalia in a work titled “Sleeping Dickhead” and acts drunk to dispel discomfort.
To briefly interrupt the dramatis personæ, it’s sort of remarkable seeing character/ensemble-driven physical theater. Evident is the time and respect shared in making the work, the scale and nature of which feels undervalued and unsupported in contemporary US performance ecology, as Andy has recently been attesting to. The play was co-commissioned by The Playwrights Foundation, and co-produced by Z Space (where it premiered last September) and La Mama.
Actors speak in third-person narration and awkward dialogue while exuding urgent and nebulous bodily intensities. Serving as shorthand for character and tipping into abstraction, their corporeality is struck with a humor and lyricism reminiscent of both Arrested Development and Complicite. With the posture of a sunbather/saint, Caroline’s (Debórah Eliezer) hands routinely alight on her thighs and arms as if applying sunscreen or anticipating somatic epiphany. Like the second coming of Tony Hale, Mack (Benjamin Stuber) embodies the throes of socio-(hetero)sexual anxiety as a twitchy topography of gestural overanalysis. Between reminiscing over the “capability” of her closets and disarming us with a brazen-to-coy tap dance, Gayle (Angela Santillo) reaches out with mundane non-sequitors of aching beauty, “I wanna be lost but not lose things.” Throughout, Callaghan skewers pop philosophy mantras: “the canyon is resistance but a river runs through it. You are the canyon. No, I mean the river,” marks Caroline’s bid at wooing Blake.
Narration from the past and future undercuts the temporal unity of the cruise, upsetting its significance in the lives of the characters and in our own investment as spectators; a balm-like rejoinder to the demand for ready-made transformation in pseudo-sacred vacations and plays. The ambivalence of the various changes Group 8 goes through seems to subvert the expectations we bring to the theater of intrigue. Is this growth that we see on display or is it something more idiosyncratic? A wry romantic indifference plays with meanings of time, intimacy, and biography. Experiences are and aren’t life-changing. We forget and remember people. Things keep happening.
Dear reader, for the artists’ sake, take into account if you can that you peruse a response to a dress rehearsal that was meant to be a final preview had the set not arrived an hour and twenty minutes before curtain after being lost in transit somewhere in New England for days. Woe! Thankfully that drama is now behind the resilient company, and the show is decked out. But to aestheticize the accidental for a moment, the fraught conditions of my spectating introduced intriguing resonances. That the set was unpainted, for instance, served to double trouble the notions of luxury and renewal at stake for the characters. And strikingly, at one point, the constant Server (Patrick Young) sweeps off a pile of jumpsuits only to reappear with them at the top of the stairs and cast them offstage again. Yalom’s “we have to work on that,” could be heard from the back in response to this surreal moment of quiet rupture. Were we seeing two choices at once, executed with a kind of beautiful flatness and doubt? Not understanding one’s blocking is a direct route to the uncanny, though on a different register than craft-based affect, one that might in fact “sell out” skill. This essentially theatrical moment, an apparent glitch in the otherwise streamlined plotting and performing made me unexpectedly apprehensive, giddy, and attuned to the machinations lurking in the depths of the play. Which, by the way, looks great.
Multi-talented Benjamin Stuber’s costumes alternately color-code and food-code the characters from monochromatic resort casual to buffet-print autographed jumpsuits. Dan Stratton’s set evokes a ship’s deck made of children’s blocks with its sloping modular half-pipe and upstage scrim for Lucas Krech’s expressionistic lighting. The slick design supports spatial compositions delighting in levels and tableaux washed over by Patrick Kaliski’s lounge music and baby cries (cradling is a theme, sh!). Synchronized group choreography by Erika Chong Shuch and triple-threat Debórah Eliezer exhumes personal insecurity (“I hold myself at night by my shoulders like this I can’t sleep otherwise”), vacation theater flair (Busby Berkeley-y disrobing), and consumer vulnerability (Johnny O possesses the group in Top 40 recitation).
Priming his passengers for their ritual, that same impresario barker queries, “are you in touch with what you lack?” He might as well be addressing our contemporary performance landscape. foolsFURY celebrates a threatened form of theater-making that foregrounds virtuosic ensemble characterization, sensitivity, and imagination. It’s a form that deserves some national TLC.
Port Out, Starboard Home at La MaMa’s First Floor Theatre
74a East 4th St., NYC
Performances continue tomorrow November 13th & run thru November 25th
Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30pm & Sunday at 2:30pm