If you're looking for an easy target, cruise passengers are probably somewhere between hipsters and Todd Akin. But foolsFURY, a physical theater ensemble, evidently likes its fish in barrels. Its latest show, Port Out, Starboard Home or P.O.S.H., which it's presenting with Z Space, mocks cruises as if Hawaiian shirts and mai tais were in urgent need of satire.
Of course, the Crown of the Sea, led by Captain Johnny O (Brian Livingston), is no ordinary cruise ship. The strained unctuousness of the captain and servers sometimes explodes into class rage; a ghostly woman named Maya (an exquisite Amy Prosser) drifts around the ship with what one character calls a "papoose" wrapped around her shoulder; the question, "Are you in touch with what you lack?" pops up repeatedly, always uttered with great solemnity so that we won't miss the play's main theme. And then there's the mysterious, oft-whispered-about "ritual" around which the cruise is centered, the reason all these passengers with four-car garages back home have bought tickets. The neon-colored booze will stop flowing, the salsa music will fade, and through some communal event, enlightenment will come, washing away guests' anxieties, fears, and general spiritual emptiness.
Written by Sheila Callaghan in conjunction with the ensemble, P.O.S.H. posits that ours is a society of ravenous consumers, and not just in economic terms. Presented with an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, characters plunge into their feeding troughs with clumsy savagery, gorging to destroy. Surrounded by lithe, multi-ethnic servers, they appraise young bodies like auctioneers looking at cuts of meat. "Excellent cheekbones," comments one. These are characters who aren't just in touch with what they lack; they are consumed by what they want to consume, so much so that for the first half of the play they almost never successfully exchange a line of dialogue. They're always starting to talk at the same time, or not listening to each other, or forgetting how to end their sentences -- like giddy, self-conscious kindergartners.
The ritual, which isn't staged, just talked about (but in explicit enough terms to kill the mystery), is supposed to show how desperate, how inhumane we are liable to become in effort to achieve fulfillment and how elusive that fulfillment will remain. But the ritual is the most didactic part of the show. Far more interesting are the six passengers who take part in it, performed with daring and specificity by Deborah Eliezer, Josiah Polhemus, Angela Santillo, Calder Shilling, Benjamin Stuber, and Jessica Unker. Characters narrate one another's backgrounds and epilogues (in rhythmic, perky unison), and the details Callaghan includes are choice enough to make full human beings out of just a couple of sentences but still evocative enough to make you want to know more. For one character, "once a month she looks for a different job." Another, who's here on a "divorce party," has asked a neighbor to cat-sit back home, and "right now that neighbor is eating all her Pepperidge Farm Goldfish."
We don't get to know more, though; instead we only watch the characters be marooned by the weight of it all. Dan Stratton's scene design and Lucas Krech's lighting make the watching easy on the eyes, though. The set looks like step one of a ship sculpture. Enough clay has been cut away, and enough nautical details added, that you can clearly make out the outline of a vessel, but it's still so rounded and smooth that you have to imagine the rest -- a choice that helpfully keeps us out of the real world. The shiny whites of the set make for an ideal canvas on which Krech's vibrant lights play, evoking promo video-perfect sunsets, below-deck disco rooms, and all the harrowing moods in between.
After a while, though, you might find that, like the cruise passengers, you need more than a picturesque vista or two. P.O.S.H. has many strengths; it just doesn't play to them.
P.O.S.H. continues through Sept. 22 at Z Space, 450 Florida St. (at Mariposa) S.F. Admission is $20-$35.