The Shaw Festival is wintering in the GTA at the moment. Arcadia, the Tom Stoppard masterpiece, is its official offering, playing in an excellent production at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, the grand old dame of Toronto theatres.
But you’ll also find two of the Shaw’s younger company members – Julia Course and Craig Pike – doing some of their finest work to date in one of the smallest theatres in town, the Theatre Passe Muraille backspace.
Fishskin Trousers is the latest offering from Cart/Horse, a theatre company dedicated to stories “told in the simplest terms, with no trickery, no distraction.” English playwright Elizabeth Kuti’s play fits the mandate, comprised, as it is, of three monologues that take place near a peninsula in Suffolk called Orford Ness, in three different time periods.
In 1173, Mab (Arlin Dixon), a servant at the Orford Castle, tells us a story about a merman captured off the Ness, whome she must deliver buckets of fish to and gradually discovers a connection with.
In 1973, Ben (Craig Pike, charming), an Australian radar scientist working on a secret military base on the Ness, is obsessed with a mysterious sound emanating from the sea that makes a traumatic memory resurface.
And in 2003, Mog (Julia Course), a single schoolteacher approaching her 30th birthday, is drawn back home to the Ness after a week from hell – and must face up to the consequences of her affair with a married man.
Fishskin Trousers interweaves its three character’s speeches, a type of storytelling whose theatrical practitioners include Brian Friel (Faith Healer), Judith Thompson (Palace of the End) and, mostly recently, Nicolas Billon, who won a Governor-General’s Award for his collection of triptychs, Fault Lines.
Monologue is a devilishly difficult form of theatre, especially when an actor is confined to a chair for the whole evening as Dixon, Pike and Course are here – placed in a diagonal line by director Matthew Gorman.
At their worst, monologues can make you feel like you’re trapped at a never-ending audition. When well written and performed, however, they can be a kind of out-of-body experience – as you begin to imagine and then see the world through another person’s eyes.
Course pulls you in entirely as Mog. She’s absolutely luminous as this young woman who struggles with a dark depression, a study in contrasts that’s true to life. (We all know these effortlessly charismatic characters who nevertheless fight off the black dog in private.) Course gives one of the most physical performances I’ve seen from her, despite never leaving her chair – and is particularly impressive in a moment when she speaks to the voice of her mother, a sequence that could seem cheesy, but is here chilling.
Shows like Fishskin Trousers inevitably become a kind of monologue competition – and you end up assessing the actors against one another, whether you intend to or not. Take the accents, for instance: Course slips into hers like it’s a silky undergarment, while Dixon wears hers like an oversized overcoat. (Pike dons his Australian twang like a jaunty vest.)
Course simply inhabits her character, while Dixon is continuously presenting hers; Course’s performance feels liberated by the restrictions placed upon her by the chair, while Dixon seems trapped in hers. Pike simply snuggles in and tells his story like he’s nursing the last glass of scotch in the bottle, with a mix of wistfulness and terror.
To be fair to Dixon, Mab’s story – full of fantastical fare and ye olde argot – is a harder sell, while Mog’s has a natural fluidity to it. Kuti holds back facts and backstory from the merman tale simply because she wants to keep suspense up. It’s a story that could use a little more trickery to distract from its contrivances – but the few lighting and sound cues Gorman has conjured tend to interrupt the spell, rather than seal it tighter.
Over all, though, Fishskin Trousers is a good yarn that, underneath its mystical and at times metaphysical themes, seems to ultimately be about the anxiety of reaching the end of your 20s. Course and Pike’s performances make a visit worthwhile – a three-legged stool will stand even if one of the legs is a little shorter.
Fishskin Trousers continues to Dec. 7. Visit artsboxoffice.ca for tickets and times.Report Typo/Error