Friday, May 10, 2019

8 (2019-2020): Review: FRUITING BODIES (seen May 9, 2019)

"Stalking the Wild Morel"an

A couple of nights ago, my plus-one happened to ask if I’d ever had a mushroom-based, hallucinogenic experience. I hadn’t but, coincidentally, Sam Chanse’s Fruiting Bodies, the play I saw the next night, produced by the Ma-Yi Theater Company, is about an avid mushroom hunter named Ben Nakagawa (Thom Sesma). Admittedly, Ben’s more concerned with other types of mushrooms, particularly the edible ones; he's equally sensitive to the death caps, which can kill you.  
Thom Sesma. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Fruiting Bodies whose title means “the spore-producing organ of a fungus, often seen as a mushroom or toadstool,” mixes conventional and magic realism in a way that sometimes suggests a mushroom trip. Not a particularly mind-blowing one, though.
Emma Kikue, Kimiye Corwin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ben, a sad, third-generation, middle-aged, Japanese-American, is mushroom hunting in the forest near the reclusive town of Bolinas, California, not far from San Francisco. Reid Thomson has provided an attractive forest setting, hauntingly lit by Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew; it’s both realistic and stylized, with trees that revolve on cue, a large, beanbag-like rock, and doors built into the side walls for exits and entrances. The cushy boulder, in keeping with the play’s mystical underpinnings, is said to be incredibly comfortable. It’s even called Rock Van Winkle because you could fall asleep on it and never be seen again.
Jeffrey Omura, Emma Kikue. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The actual Bolinas, as the play accurately notes, has no road signs, which sets up the premise of Ben’s mixed-race, adult daughters, Vicky (Emma Kikue) and Mush (Kimiye Corwin), getting lost in their car (the usual car seats and a steering wheel) as they search for their father where even their phone GPS systems don’t work. They’ll need to refine their internal GPS’s as they search both for their quirky dad and for whatever it is that ties them all to one another.
Jeffrey Omura. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Vicky’s a programmer who wants to get back to her job creating an app designed to facilitate human communication via social media. Mush, more intent on finding Ben, is rootless, having just been fired from her latest job, teaching writing at SF State. The reason? Vandalizing school property. Something of a conceptual artist, Mush (rhymes with “push”) gabbles pretentiously that what she’s done--writing over public images of celebrities and major institution--is not graffiti but an act of “wiping” that deflates the power their images have to remind the rest of us of our insignificance. Whatever.
Kimiye Corwin, Emma Kikue, Jeffrey Omura, Thom Sesma,. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The sisters’ disagreement over this is just one of the things causing them to bicker and even physically fight over. Vicky, for example, seems nearly as conversant with the biological facts surrounding mushrooms as her father, while Mush (if you can buy it) wasn’t even aware the family house was filled with books about mushrooms, much less that her sister was so knowledgeable. It’s only one of the hard-to-swallow ingredients in this play about the difficulties in human connectedness.
Jeffrey Omura, Thom Sesma, Emma Kikue, Kimiye Corwin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Wandering in the forest, Ben ruminates to the trees in monologues clotted with scientific details about mushrooms, remembers the different times he spent in the forest with his son, Eddie, from whom he's now estranged, and  regrets his separation from his Finnish wife, involved with another man. The split with Eddie—now married, with a new child, to another man—happened when Eddie came out of the closet. (A homophobic dad being shocked by his son’s sexuality is also a subject in Caroline’s Kitchen at 59E59.)
Emma Kikue, Jeffrey Omura, Kimiye Corwin, Thom Sesma. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
He also encounters a mischievous, unusually articulate, Puck-like, 10-year old boy, whose reality (“I’m already part of the forest,” he says) sometimes seems questionable, and a giant morel mushroom, portrayed as a cunningly cool dude in a red hoodie. It’s never clear if Ben is expressing incipient dementia or random free association. (The boy, for all his sprite-like qualities, engages with Vicky and Mush, so the nature of his existence remains moot.) Both the boy and the human mushroom are played by adult actor Jeffrey Omura, who also triples as Eddie. It’s a confusing conceit, carried out mainly by the Omura’s attitudinal shifts accompanied by lighting changes. For all Omura’s effort, it isn’t worth the trouble.
Jeffrey Omura, Kimiye Corwin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Woven through the play are references to suicide and stories of death, including that of a cat and a man found cut to pieces in the forest; Japanese-American cultural issues (that barely go anywhere); Instagram as a means of human connection, even in a zone where Internet signals are problematic; and the mutual responsibilities toward one another of parents and children as well as siblings. And while the tonal shifts make us question what’s real and what’s not, the dramatic action and characters are rarely inviting enough to inspire making the effort.
Jeffrey Omura, Emma Kikue. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
All the performances are satisfactory but none rises above the script’s most essential requirements, Nor does Shelley Butler’s bland, dully paced direction go the extra mile in making this production more than just another blip in the new season. Hopefully, Ma-Yi’s next outing will prove more fruitful than Fruiting Bodies.

Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through May 19