A Two-Hour Tour

17. September, 2012 Theater No comments

Let’s get the title out of the way first. The word “posh” supposedly derives from an acronym for “Port Out, Starboard Home,” indicating the most desirable accommodations aboard ships from England to India and back. Merriam-Webster, for one, doesn’t buy that etymology at all, but in any case that’s the relatively simple explanation for the seemingly abstruse title of foolsFURY Theater’s collaboration with playwright Sheila Callaghan, Port Out, Starboard Home, now premiering at San Francisco’s Z Space before moving to La Mama in New York in November.

Angela Santillo, Zac Jaffee, and Jessica Unker in Port Out, Starboard Home. Photo by Richard Horatio Nelson.

POSH sets the scene even before it starts, with ushers dressed as sailors greeting you and welcoming you to the Crown of the Seas as you enter the lobby with fixed smiles and the sort of glazed, impenetrable cheerfulness that could cover up just about anything. When the house is about to open, a line of servers appears on a balcony above the lobby, singing in unison about the importance of thanking the servers who wait on you hand and foot but secretly despise you and are infinitely superior to you. “These are not servers—these are gods,” they sing sweetly, as if Christmas caroling.

The unusually deep stage at Z Space is turned into the curved contours of a cruise ship deck in Dan Stratton’s set. The passengers are presided over by the only occasionally appearing Mephistophelean cruise director Johnny O, who’s much like a sinister stage magician in Brian Livingston’s portrayal, with a rich, resonant voice and fancy mustache. All the servers except the silently supporting Patrick Young double as the curious collection of passengers. They also act as a chorus, at least three at a time giving snarky summaries of each passenger’s personality in deadpan unison.

Everyone on board whispers about a mysterious woman named Maya who roams around the decks with a baby swaddled in a sling across her chest. They talk about sightings of her as if she were some kind of celebrity, but it becomes increasingly clear that whatever the experience is that the group is here to have, Maya is the one coordinating it. She talks to everyone with touchy-feeling openness—always about them, not herself—but as played by Amy Prosser, she has a haunted, sad quality about her that doesn’t seem like someone who’s found any kind of serenity in her own life.

Calder Shilling’s Gary has the kind of desperate, gaping grin that clearly masks deep-seated anxiety. A luxury cruise aficionado, Gary is always gushing about all the comforts of ship life. “It’s cruisetastic!” he enthuses. He quotes movies incessantly, never apropos of anything, like a nervous tic. “No one is stupid on a cruise,” he says several times, just driving it home if we needed any reminders that everyone on this cruise is extremely stupid indeed.

Debórah Eliezer’s fretful Caroline is a much less defined character, except that she’s unhappy, always looking uncomfortable, covering up her body as she lounges in a bikini by the pool. She’s divorced and talks nervously about all kinds of superficial stuff, but at the same time is clearly drawn to new age spirituality, and is consequently fascinated with Maya. Jessica Unker makes an adrift-seeming teenager as Daria, who sounds more elaborately screwed up from her description (addicted to prescription meds, etc.) than she actually seems. Mostly she’s just insecure and self-deprecating, always cringing and calling herself stupid.

Angela Santillo’s Gayle is by far the most entertaining character—always smiling nervously and rattling on a mile-a-minute about the most inane, boring minutiae. She’s always trying to be friendly and outgoing, always getting discourages and instantly psyching herself back up again in a way that makes her seem unhinged.  And her clumsy, jerky dancing is hilarious. “She is a fucking terrible dancer,” the chorus explains helpfully.

Gayle strikes up an exaggeratedly awkward flirtation with Mack, a high-strung, antisocial young man played by Benjamin Stuber (who also designed the costumes) as someone clearly somewhere in the autism spectrum. He’s there with his dad, the boorish and overbearing Blake, embodied by Josiah Polhemus with aptly infuriating condescension.

Helmed by artistic director Ben Yalom, the show’s often very funny, but it’s just as often slow and perplexing, with bits that go on too long or don’t really seem clear why they’re there. There’s a real emphasis on stylized movement, with a number of sequences choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch that only loosely connect to the rest of the play. Slow, abstract modern dance movements become a group disco dance. Johnny O. forces the guests into doing spastic involuntary aerobics like a puppeteer with his marionettes. The guests put on matching jumpsuits and gorge themselves on pasta in a stylized frenzy of gluttony, strewing it everywhere, while Johnny preaches about the contempt the servers have for the passengers: “All you do is feed.”

POSH is a collaboratively developed theater piece, and it definitely feels like something cobbled together from group suggestions—more a series of vignettes and exercises based around a theme and some basic character sketches than anything with a unified vision and story. Many of the vignettes are quite entertaining, but the play feels like less than the sum of its parts. It’s amusing when Gary plays “Material Girl” tentatively on a mandolin, but it’s another isolated bit that doesn’t really have anything to do with anything (except, I suppose, materialism).

There’s one long stretch where the passengers are off having the experience that everything’s been leading up to and the audience is left to stare at the empty set for a long time. For a little while you can at least watch Young’s crew member sweeping up, which isn’t exactly entertaining but at least it’s something, but once he’s done it’s just empty space. I suppose this is supposed to be suspenseful (especially judging from sound designer Patrick Kaliski’s suspense music), but really it’s just boring. There is a payoff of sorts to all this that’s amusing in its gruesomeness, but it doesn’t really take you anywhere except right back to the premise of the beginning—that is, essentially, “hey, aren’t people who go on luxury cruises stupid, useless wastes of space?” But I guess that’s the nature of a cruise—ultimately the destination is right back where you started.

Port Out, Starboard Home
Through September 23
Z Space
450 Florida St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #84 of 2012, attended September 10.

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