Thursday, August 1, 2013

Getting scrod in Gloucester

The working class confronts the protector (Therese Plaehn) who could be their enemy. Photos: Gary Ng.

The women of Gloucester's fish industry have it hard.

Or at least they take it hard in Israel Horowitz's North Shore Fish, the opening entrée of Gloucester Stage's premiere season a quarter century ago in its current space (appropriately enough, a former warehouse of Gorton's of Gloucester), which after a hit New York run (and even a Pulitzer nom) has now returned to its spawning ground for what I guess counts as a victory lap (through this Sunday only). 

And the good news is that director Robert Walsh, along with a talented cast, proves Horowitz's sprawling, raunchy, twenty-five-year-old script is still theatrically and comically fertile - even if what, precisely, the playwright intends as the point of the metaphor muddling at the bottom of this Fish tank never quite comes clear.  Still, smart, satiric intentions can carry a play pretty far upstream  - so perhaps it's enough to say that Gorton's would doubtless disapprove of the way Horowitz has filleted its industry.

The playwright clearly intends to draw a parallel between the economic exploitation of the women who package the product of his fading fish plant and their status as a virtual harem for their manager (it's called "North Shore Fish" for a reason - and if you don't get the pun, ponder that one of the few men on the scene is called "Porker"). Yes, the ladies are not only being degraded economically, but sexually as well - only Horowitz is clear-eyed about their own collaboration with this double blow to their dignity. Which ain't a bad premise - only we pick it up in about ten minutes (and definitely by the time the second babe strips down to her bra in the locker room).  And then Horowitz seems unsure of where to go - or how to develop his leading capitalist exploiter/stooge, Salvatore "Sally" Morella (newcomer Lowell Byers), once a working-class hero himself, into a sufficiently compelling and complicated figure.  He does far better by his leading lady, Florence Rizzo (Aimee Doherty), but even she can't seem to imagine a way out of her current degradation.  Perhaps that's simply Horowitz's view of the working class - but I, for one, disagree - and at any rate, it's an attitude that leads to a dramatic dead end.

Aimee Doherty is wooed by THomas Phillip O'Neill
Still, the author's ear for the salty patois of Gloucester never fails him, and he clearly has a feel for how Catholicism crash-landed in the sexual revolution. He likewise gives everyone a sharp, self-aware tongue, and keeps us entertained with a wackily crass geography of overlapping affairs and sexual histories, spiced with business crises and ultimatums, and interrupted by the occasional brawl - all witnessed by a government inspector who, yes, is literally a cold fish (sorry). In the final analysis, Horowitz's play may only tread water (and he should definitely deep-six its final scene); but until that dissatisfying dénouement North Shore Fish is often a fun, bouncy ride.

It helps that director Walsh knows his way around emotional and physical violence (he's a fight director), and so practically has the tone  of this play in his bones.  And luckily everyone on board this fishing expedition knows how to reel in a character; every summer Gloucester Stage reliably fields a contender for the IRNE Best Ensemble Award, and this crowd probably constitutes this year's model. New York imports Lowell Byers and Thomas Phillip O'Neill (yes, one of the O'Neill's - playing "Porker"!) both distinguish themselves, and manage the local accent pretty well - but to be honest, there's not a weak link among the women, from Aimee Doherty's world-weary romantic (Doherty's having a banner year so far) to Nancy E. Carroll's sad, saintly den mother, to Therese Plaehn's nervously chilly government inspector.  Marianna Armitstead also impressed with a fearless turn as a woman too often scorned, and the ensemble was skillfully filled out by Brianne Beatrice, Erin Brehm, and Esme Allen. If the playwright eventually leaves this talented crew at sea, that's hardly their fault; and after all, even a cruise to nowhere can have its pleasures.

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