By JK Clarke
The subculture surrounding the art of mushroom “hunting,” contrary to conventional expectations, is ripe with intrigue, competitiveness and sometimes violence. In the forests of the Pacific Northwest of the United States (Oregon, Washington State), some have even resorted to murder to take, or protect, territory. So, one would expect that a play billing itself as being set in the world of mushroom hunting would be full of fascinating revelations. Unfortunately, Sam Chanse’s new play, Fruiting Bodies—running through May 19 at The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, produced by the Ma-Yi Theater Company and directed by Shelley Butler—is merely a story of familial dysfunction, with the fungus fascination serving as a light covering of topsoil.
Set in Northern California, just north of San Francisco off of Highway 1, Fruiting Bodies is the story of two Amerasian (their father is Japanese, their mother Scandinavian) sisters, Vicky (Emma Kikue) and Mush (Kimiye Corwin), who are searching for their wayward, absent minded (and possibly senile) father, Ben (Thom Sesma) who has called Vicky from a pay phone, having lost or tossed his iPhone, asking them to come find him. Vicky and Mush couldn’t be more different from one another and bicker as they try to figure out where they’re going in Vicky’s Tesla because its navigation system is down. Vicky is the ultimate Bay Area techie who works for a start-up, has the latest in apps and gadgets and believes wholeheartedly in the gig-economy ethos. Mush (and note the loudly telegraphed double entendre of her name), on the other hand, is a slacker who jumps from internship to internship, despises the tech world, yet employs its terminology to make disruptive artistic statements wherever she can by writing the word “Wiped” across various symbols of the new establishment. The girls do have one thing in common: neither are very likable.
Meanwhile Ben has wandered back into the forest, somewhere near the town of Bolinas, hunting for mushrooms. Like Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse Five, Ben seems to be unstuck in time, and keeps flashing back to mushroom gathering expeditions with his son Eddie, from whom he is now estranged (it appears Eddie a happily married gay man living in Seattle and Ben—rather surprisingly if his general nature is any indication—is homophobic). With young Eddie he is happy and engaged—these were the good old days. A Boy (Jeffrey Omura, who also plays Eddie) appears and engages with Ben. The precocious Boy is ten years old, asks too many questions and seems almost too familiar with the forest, causing one to initially wonder if he actually exists. Eventually, the girls reunite with their father as well as meet the boy and we get to see the roots of the family’s problems; but, like the search for mushrooms, the pathway meanders and is often misleading.
Fruiting Bodies suffers from expository excess. Large chunks of dialog serve only to provide commentary on the state of Bay Area and Silicon Valley culture, doing little to move the story forward. And the only reason the town of Bolinas (a legendary hippie/artist enclave, once home to the author/poet Richard Brautigan) is mentioned is so the playwright can go off on a tangent about how non-conformist the town is. It’s a long way to go for an anecdote. A story about the culture of mushroom hunters—who’ve been compared in articles about this world to Gold Rush miners—would have been far more compelling than a familiar tale of family strife set in a redwood forest.
Reid Thompson’s forest set—that’s both realistic and simultaneously feels like a Museum of Natural History life-size diorama—goes a long way to adding a naturalistic feel to the play; as does Kate Marvin’s sound design. And while the cast, particularly Sesma, plays their roles well, none of the characters are compelling enough to make the performances enjoyable. Like mushroom hunting Fruiting Bodies requires a significant amount of searching and digging, while yielding very little.
Fruiting Bodies. Through May 19 at the Clurman Theatre in Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). 100 minutes, no intermission. www.bfany.org/theatre-row/shows/fruiting-bodies/
Photos: Carol Rosegg