Kamijo and the Folk Theatre Troupe

at Phyllis’ Musical Inn

They could have done Bus Stop, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, Clandestine on the Morning Line, or any number of plays with a cafe or barroom setting. But Kamijo, in conjunction with the Folk Theatre Troupe, chose to put the ready-made environment of Phyllis’ Musical Inn at the service of Edward J. Moore’s The Sea Horse. It was an unfortunate choice–though the members of both companies have talent and drive, they can’t pull it off.

Moore, who in 1974 won the Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Playwright for this play, based it on the old comic courtship scenario, in which two equally imperfect models of humanity find love and happiness together. (Shakespeare explored this same theme in The Taming of the Shrew, and Chekhov in several short farces.) One of the unlikely lovers is Gertrude Blum, who became proprietress of the Sea Horse, a waterfront tavern, after her abusive husband deserted her. She has decided to arm herself in 200 pounds of flesh. “Couple of guys slapped me to the floor . . . Can you imagine anyone trying that now?” she asks defiantly. “Look at me! I’m a fat pig! Nobody can beat on a fat pig!” Harry Bales is a salty old sea dog whose thoughts are turning landward, to dreams of home, wife, and children. A shipboard vision, induced by Cupid or faulty machinery, has convinced him that “Two-Ton Gertie” is the woman to share that life with him, and he has come therefore to ask for her hand in marriage. The first hand she gives him holds a “peacemaker” club, for Gertrude is reluctant to place her trust in another man. But after the obligatory fucking and fighting, Jolly Jack Tar and his fat, fair, and 40 Jill are united. Amor vincit omnia.

This material would have made a wonderful vehicle for two curmudgeonly old character actors–Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler, for example, or Walter Matthau and Bea Arthur. The romance of young people is that their whole lives are ahead of them, and the romance of old people is that not all of their lives are behind them. The romance of Gertrude and Harry’s situation is that, at an age when most of their contemporaries have given up hope, they are willing to risk beginning again.

Unfortunately, the actors in this production have neither the age nor the experience to make their characters convincing. Without that weariness and resignation that come from a lifetime of being beaten down by squalor and monotony, there can be no joy in seeing new hope. At no time do we get the sense that these characters have weathered, just as we never see them stop to consider how they feel or what they will do next–see the wheels turning in their heads. What we see are blank-faced actors whose mouths remain open even when they’re not speaking–they’re poised for their next line. This lack of depth gives the cuddling and quarreling a disturbingly adolescent feel.

Ian Barford’s Harry seems more a product of youthful exuberance than of mid-life tenacity. At one point, Harry tears off his shirt in mock macho amorousness–with a gut and a faded tattoo or two, this might have been hilarious, but here it’s just another gratuitous display of pale, pretty male flesh. And Lisa M.R. Formosa’s Gertrude comes off more as a girl undecided over whether or not to go steady than as a worn-out drudge teetering between what she knows of male frailties and her genuine affection for Harry. The fact that we see virtually none of this affection at any time turns her resistance into a questionable coquetry–and we must believe that her resistance is more than that if her capitulation is to have any force.

Phyllis’ Musical Inn is a nice old shabby-genteel saloon, albeit a bit too fine for a California seaport. (I also wondered, every time a character drank straight from the bar bottle, whether Gertrude intended to serve customers from it–in a theater setting, this would never have occurred to me.) No set designer is credited, nor is any costume designer or coordinator named. There’s no sound designer, apparently, to blame for the canned ocean roar originating on our left, while the actors repeatedly indicate that the ocean is on our right. But responsibility is given to fight director Tim Kough for an obviously choreographed scuffle in which a blow to the solar plexus is indistinguishable from a kick to the crotch.

At the very beginning of the play, when Harry was pounding on the door of the closed and shuttered Sea Horse and Gertrude was debating whether or not to open up, a man in the audience called out, “Don’t let him in!” Of course, if she had heeded this advice, there would have been no play–but then maybe the cast could have found the time to go down to Calumet Harbor and study a few real mariners and the women who love them. It might have helped.