Cactus Theatre

at Prop Thtr

In the middle of Fishing a character explains the term “Indian fog”–the Indians believed that when the gods wanted to atone for some mistake they had made, they wrapped creation in a dense fog while they performed their secret repairs.

It’s a beautiful legend, and fitting to Fishing, the second of Michael Weller’s 1975 coming-of-age trilogy (the other, more popular parts are Moonchildren and Loose Ends). The playwright wraps his characters–friends gathered in a cabin in the Pacific Northwest–in their own redemptive fog.

Weller uses a group peyote trip to open up his characters, frightened young folks afraid to undergo life’s sentence (i.e., turning 30). Essentially a long and rocky trip followed by a calming aftermath when the characters’ fear of the future momentarily ebbs, Fishing makes for a raw ride. This manic, louder-than-life Cactus Theatre production is an endurance test too draining to be worth the agony involved–for everyone.

Most of Fishing’s three hours consists of dramatized group hallucinations. The only plot question here is whether Robbie and Bill will buy the decrepit fishing boat that Bill hopes will turn him into a deep-sea fisherman. It’s the latest of a lot of dreams that Bill has hatched and destroyed, like the farm he gave up after he shot a cow for not giving more milk.

Hot-wired by his misapplied energy, Bill is seething with get-rich schemes he’ll no doubt abandon the moment he starts to feel trapped. Robbie, a rich kid who feels dead inside and dulls the ache by moving from friend to friend, is unsure whether to invest his dad’s money in Bill’s boat. He wonders if he’s doing it because he likes to live vicariously through Bill’s failures, catastrophes that he finds strangely comforting in their sheer predictability.

The other characters are Bill’s girl, Shelly, a vaporous flower child (Weller has never done well by his women); Rory, a hard-drinking, loudmouthed buddy who ends up carrying no weight in the play; and Mary Ellen and Dane, two now-successful old friends pursuing their much more fashionable dead ends. Reilly is the man who wants to sell them the symbolically sinking boat; he’s dying painfully of what appears to be a very mean migraine headache.

The peyote peaks or crashes, the fog surrounds them with wonder, and the dialogue matches the weirdness: Robbie thoughtfully compares Shelly to a fully formed turd floating in the toilet; he tells Mary Ellen he wants to “suck her tits”; the guys have a strange game of Frisbee in the fog; and after Bill comes down from the trip, he tears a chicken apart (he had killed it earlier because it didn’t lay enough eggs) to signal his fury at Reilly’s pointless death.

In the end Robbie describes an epiphany he had on his motorcycle as he grooved on some rocks; it taught him that just existing is enough. After Robbie and Bill offer their version of the wisdom of the centuries–“Another day, another trip”–they hug and presumably go off to buy their boat.

I felt a different kind of deliverance on leaving the theater. However incoherent in its intensity, Weller’s period piece deserves better than to be mugged by Robert Ellermann’s frenetic but dragged-out staging. With a scratch-and-spit acting style that out-asskicks Steppenwolf and a pile-driving acid-rock score, Fishing is one of the loudest shows I’ve ever heard; poor Weller’s slower truths just get drowned in the decibels.

Sure, it’s the kind of scenery-chewing script that instantly appeals to actors. (And pairing the Cactus Theatre with a play about peyote must have seemed like a marriage made in pharmacological heaven.) But those on the receiving end just hear a lot of sound and fury signifying overacting. Ellermann’s staging is good at suggesting the well-worn habits of old friends falling into established rhythms, and at depicting a messy peyote binge. (I have to wonder what kind of method-acting preparation went into the play.) But though the euphoric highs and the nauseous lows are vivid and convincing, it’s almost cruel to ask an audience to watch this stuff sober–it’s like being the only straight guest at an all-night pot party. Of course, if you want to come high . . .

The acting ranges from the outsize to the exasperatingly internal, from an unmotivated bellowing to milked pauses and a throbbing, breathless mumbling as if the actors feel these moments are too special to share with an audience. And there are frozen silences that might as well be happening in slow motion, as if the actors were waiting for the right emotion before they could bring themselves to say their lines.

Certainly Cactus’s excellent Waiting for Lefty had its share of excess, but the energy was successfully diffused amid Odets’s busy stage action. In Fishing, it just feels like a string of theatrical tantrums. If these folks would just pull back, they’d become a lot more real.

Fortunately few actors get to dismember a real chicken every night, but William Green as Bill does it with a passion I hope he’ll soon get over. Indeed, if hurling yourself screaming and kicking into a role were sufficient unto the play, both Green and Bryan Burke (as Robbie) would be among the immortals. As it is, each has a solid performance locked up somewhere inside this wall-to-wall emotional overkill.

Kenneth Cavett has a lot of serious fun flopping around the stage as the dying Reilly; so does Robert Cooner as Dane, the architect who slowly loses his own foundations. The others give their confused losers a forced intensity that’s too big to be believed. It’s strange–the usual problem afflicting Chicago theaters (sometimes even Steppenwolf) is that actors don’t bring the right or enough energy to their roles. The Cactus company presents a rare reversal, a troupe that needs to turn down the volume to hear the play it wants to bring to life. Hey, Cacti, just say no.