Fish or Cut Bait
Review by Patrick Ledwell
From the moment I stepped into the Victoria Playhouse to see Fish or Cut Bait, it was clear that a cultural motif was at work. Behind a frothy plywood sea swell, the set (another richly imagined staging from W. Scott MacConnell) featured a single, standard-issue palm tree that located me immediately on thematic ground.
Some of my favorite variations on the desert island archetype—genus silica monotreeus—come from The Far Side, where the motif gets mined for dozens of jokes, but only one real conclusion. If two come ashore (scenario A), the castaways eat at each other, one starting The Desert Island Press solely to libel his only reader. If stranded alone (scenario B), the castaway eats at himself, suffering a loss of perspective where approaching salvation turns out only to be a toy boat, uselessly aground.
In Fish or Cut Bait, by Southern playwright John Holleman, two unnamed contemporary men fall from a budget cruise ship in circumstances as flimsy as, well, budget guard rails, and wash up on the conveniently-located sandheap. A businessman who I’ll dub the President (Josh Weale) declares himself alpha male, and speaking unsoftly, wields a big stick over the head of his beta. He spends all his time gazing skyward for the navy pilots he believes will execute the perfect search matrix. Between stretches of forced labour, the ship’s Piano Player (Graham Putnam) weaves patterns from stuff more abstract than planes, narrating baseball with composer’s names to prevent his mind from mocking its own meat.
Holleman is cannily aware that the island theme is anything but inhabited. Much of the comedy of the play is derived from rubbing up against the recognized cultural script, mentioned outright in metafictional winks at Lord of the Flies and Gilligan’s Island. The taboo topics horribly present in Golding—cannibal-style violence—and horribly absent from Gilligan—any notional framework of sex—are mined for the funniest runs in the play, where the two characters engage in exchanges skirting the forbidden. When the strandees riff on the “personal pink juices” of a London Broil, or target eligible partners from Gilligan (including the title character “in two more weeks”), we’re tickled by the fringe of civilization unravelling. Will they jump on one another, and for satisfactions of dinner or date?
The script (particularly in the first half) does not allot the two characters equal servings, and on a desert island for two, uneven portions never sit entirely well. Always a strong stage presence, Weale is underused by writing that only gives him the spectrum of response of a right-wing radio host: spout banalities about discipline, threaten the onset of chaos, and tell the feelgoodniks to shut up. Repeatedly. There’s the right sense of coiled violence to his performance, but as with most tyrants, the stage loves his character better when the mind starts going to wormsmeat.
The script tosses the Piano Player a bone with far more dramatic meat on it, and Putnam shows the teeth for it. He packs the crawling half-smile and fixed gaze that have served him in over-the-top comic roles, and tempers them for more subtle, but no less intense, story-telling work. His narration of a fabulated news story, regarding a Non-Existentialism project where participants shape the matter of card decks with their minds, is as cool and engrossing as the television it mimics.
Whether we stay or escape, don’t desert islands (scenario A) hold out the raw pleasure of story-telling as one of the few ways we can converse without slander?
Thank you to the Victoria Playhouse for a summer of thought-provoking and courageous theatre, and for telling the kind of stories that let us survive with each other and ourselves, on the Island, for another long year.