Fruiting Bodies feels like a project that hasn’t quite figured itself out yet; neither Sam Chanse’s script nor Shelley Butler’s direction ever quite lands on a consistent aesthetic or tone. The inciting incident for the plot is simple: Ben (Thom Sesma), has called his adult daughters to come rescue him after he’s gotten stranded in Bolinas hunting mushrooms–his longtime passion, which he’s now pursuing mostly alone, after his wife left him and he’s estranged from his adult son. The play takes place en route to and in the Bolinas woods, where the two daughters-Vicki (Emma Kikue) and Mush (Kimiye Corwin)–Ben, and a mysterious ten-year-old boy (Jeffrey Omura) find and lose one another, and mushrooms, over the course of the day.
At its core, the play is a gentle, largely conventional family drama, about a Japanese father of an older generation who can’t learn to really see his adult daughters, or to treat them as people equally as significant as his son. But Chanse adds a bunch of additional layers, not entirely successfully: The play dances around all kinds of big ideas–about technology and philosophy, about human connectedness and the role of the observer, about the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox (which is also literally represented in the play by a mystery involving the family cat), about trying to break ingrained patterns in one’s family and one’s culture–but the ideas are mostly draped over the top of plot elements (Vicki’s focused career versus Mush’s un-directedness; Mush’s idea of creativity versus Vicki’s creation of apps) rather than feeling intrinsic to the characters. The relationships and dialogue among the adult characters are naturalistic, but the setting (Reid Thompson’s elegant woods) adds elements of fantasy or magical realism: a strangely comfortable rock that seems to move from place to place, local legends that recall Rip Van Winkle and a sort of Bigfoot of the Mushrooms character, Ben traveling in and out of moments in his relationship with his son, and mysterious music and other sounds (Kate Marvin’s sound design is at times heavy-handed). And then there’s the boy, whose stories don’t quite add up, and who seems to appear and disappear at will–is he a damaged kid telling falsehoods, the ghost of their brother’s past, or some sort of forest spirit?
All of the characters except the boy seem trapped by their pasts; their relationships haven’t changed in any meaningful way, and the characters seem hardly capable of growth. (The two family members who have managed to create change–Ben’s son, who got married and moved away after his father refused to accept his coming out or any of his partners, and the mother, who left Ben for another man–don’t appear in the play as adults, though Omura also plays Eddie as a child and adolescent.) Vicki yearns for her father’s approval and despite her successful tech job (which is sketched in rather than fully realized; it’s the most important thing in her life but she talks about it more like a marketer than a programmer) seems isolated and with few connections beyond her siblings. She’s almost a parody of the wired millennial who can’t function for an hour without her devices–yet seems lacking in actual human connections despite her connection-enhancing app, and depends on her possessions to declare her status. Mush (short for Michelle, but also descriptive of her vague and formless life), the oldest and least directed of the siblings, has some ideas about conceptual art, but mostly doesn’t have a firm place in the world. She doesn’t seem unhappy with her lot, except when she has to justify it to her sister, but she’s also living with their dad while he seems to be losing his grip, steadfastly refusing to engage with the things he cares about, or to try to exert some control over the situation. The characters’ stubbornness and stasis make them hard for Butler to do much with, or for the actors to grab hold of; Kikue and Corwin capture the snappish patterns of adult siblings who have nothing in common but their childhoods well, but neither feels entirely comfortable with the play’s more mystical elements. Sesma gives real affection to Ben’s passion for mushrooms, but other than that hobby and his dismissive behavior toward his son, there’s not a lot to the character.
Omura has the trickiest job, between switching among three characters–in addition to the boy and Eddie, he plays Morel, the spirit of a giant mushroom–without a change of scene and playing a role who’s both a child and a deus ex machina. He brings the right fey gravity to the boy, and makes you feel his need to fit in with this biracial family, who seems perhaps to be an inverse of his own. Still, the ultimate revelation of his story–a story that may in the end force father and daughters to act together–doesn’t quite make the pieces all come together.
There’s a lot of metaphor layered onto the mushrooms (I did learn quite a bit about the biology of mushrooms.): They “respond to disturbances in the environment …and the underground tree sprouts mushrooms in a desperate fit of activity to propagate the species.” They “take form when [their] Being is under stress.” Finding mushrooms is a matter of “pattern recognition…If there’s something you can’t perceive, something you won’t perceive, you could be standing in a forest of exquisite chanterelles without seeing a single one.” Learning to see them together, to see the world the same way, may be the key to this family’s survival. It’s a beautiful image, and the metaphorical resonance of the mushrooms may be the play’s strongest element. The problem is, the metaphor is the only evidence they could get there.