Inis Nua Theatre Company’s unique Pop-Up Play in a Pub series returns with Elizabeth Kuti’s Fishskin Trousers, staged by Claire Moyer in the upstairs barroom at Fergie’s on 12th and Sansom. Each ticket includes a drink and a Stargazy pie (meat or vegetarian).
I’m currently avoiding carbohydrates, so I passed on the nosh, hoping the entertainment would prove tasty enough. Perhaps I suffered an attack of hunger, but I spent most of the interminable hour-and-change running time praying for a mob of rowdy Quizzo fans to commandeer the space.
An excess of telling
A brawl between theatergoers and triviaheads would certainly have been livelier than anything Kuti conjures in her blurry, unengaging drama. Like many contemporary UK playwrights, she unspools her tale through a series of overlapping monologues, which leads to an excess of telling at the expense of finely wrought storytelling. Even with so much explanation, some elements remain cloudy.
The connective tissue for the three soliloquies is the village of Orford, a salty seaside town on England’s east coast. In the 13th century, hearty scrubwoman Mab (Hanna Gaffney) finds herself besotted by a merman. (Think The Shape of Water as rendered by Hogarth). Seven hundred years later, at the height of the Cold War, Australian scientist Ben (Tom Carman) wrestles with unprocessed guilt. And in the early 2000s, sympathetic schoolteacher Mog (Victoria Aaliyah Goins) weighs a major life decision on the eve of her 30th birthday.
Each of these threads holds the potential for a compelling play. Mab’s storyline draws from the English folkloric tradition, as well as the universal language of fairytales. Ben’s predicament considers the heady realities of the ’60s and ’70s, a time when the world universally shifted as people tuned in, dropped out, dodged the draft, and lived under the fearful specter of nuclear annihilation. As the most contemporary entry, Mog’s journey recognizably echoes the struggles of modern life.
Yet the overwhelming feeling of Fishskin Trousers is one of dangling threads that never quite coalesce. It often seems like Kuti started three separate plays and, unsure of a resolution, smashed them all together. The element that attempts to bind them together—it’s where the title comes in—does little to mitigate the sense of disjointedness.
Neither, frankly, does Moyer’s direction. She’s at a disadvantage working in a found space, which doesn’t allow for a set or anything but the most bare-bones lighting effects. (Ariel Luidi Wang’s costumes do help ground each character in their specific period.) But she largely keeps her performers inside discrete spatial areas, instead of using the unusual setup to her advantage. Even when the actors find themselves standing next to each other, they remain essentially siloed.
The performers make the most of the material, although Carman’s Aussie accent distractingly wanders and Goins’s singsong voice was occasionally eclipsed on opening night from the bar noise downstairs. Yet even when Goins cannot be fully heard, she manages to project a winning expressivity that communicates Mog’s inner life. Gaffney delivers a welcome dose of bawdy good humor without sacrificing subtlety or style.
I’ve seen all three actors under better circumstances, and I hope to see them again. Fishskin Trousers, on the other hand, can go jump in the ocean.
What, When, Where
Fishskin Trousers. By Elizabeth Kuti, Claire Moyer directed. Inis Nua Theatre Company. Through March 28, 2019, at Fergie’s Pub, 1214 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. (215) 454-9776 or inisnuatheatre.org.
Fishskin Trousers is performed on the second floor of Fergie’s Pub, which is accessible only by stairs.