Review: Fishskin Trousers (Cart/Horse Theatre)

Fishskin Trousers

Three personal stories intertwine in Fishskin Trousers on stage at the Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto

Fishskin Trousers is a play told in three stories by three different people in three different time periods. Walking into Theatre Passe Muraille’s backspace felt like we were docking on a waterfront as the sound of lapping waves and haunting cello notes set the mood. A carpet of fishskin is moored to the edge of the stage and three chairs sit in a diagonal line inviting the storytellers in to share their tales.

Enter Mab, Ben and Mog. Mab is a servant at Orford Castle in 1173. Ben is an Australian radar scientist on assignment at the Ness in 1973. Mog is a teacher who returns to her home on the Ness in 2003 to make a very important life decision.

Mab’s story is an account of the capture of the Wild Man of Orford. She tells of reconnecting with someone from her childhood, setting him free and paying the ultimate price for her actions. Ben’s story follows his post as a Cold War scientist and the strange activity he detects. His encounter with a spiritual young woman leads to him confronting a dark experience from his past. Mog’s story details her journey from scorned lover to a woman in trouble. She stretches herself to the limit of her mental health and is pushed back to safety by a mystical force.

The fourth character, the Ness, is comprised of all three of these stories and harbours deep and timeless mysteries beneath her shores. She is ancient and possesses the secrets of lost cities and lost souls.

Elizabeth Kuti’s writing is beautiful, poetic and lyrical. She expresses the uniqueness of each character’s voice through the idiomatic context from which they come. Mab is a medieval woman and though she doesn’t speak in Middle English—a language only a scholar could love—her voice is expressive of a long gone era. Kuti captures Ben’s Australian nuances along with the arrogance of his young manhood and while depressed, Mog is a sardonic whip.

I admit that I was lost for the first third of the play. The characters lay out the clues to a mystery but I got bogged down by the details and my mind drifted. Halfway through Mog unveils her secret and something clicked for me. I returned immediately and was captivated to the end.

From that moment, I was taken in by Kuti’s craft and the way she weaves the three disparate stories together into a brilliant and iridescent tapestry, much like the fishskin trousers that emerge right before the climax. The connection she makes among the three characters is mystical and the stuff of ancient folklore.

Part of the reason I mentally checked out during the beginning was due to the densely packed language but it was also due to the choice to have the actors remain in their respective chairs throughout the performance. In the programme, director Matthew Gorman writes, “Our design team has moored [the actors] in place and forced [them] to use the text to either break themselves out of the mystery around the Ness, or invite you in.” I understand the intention but the consequence for me was that I lost connection and I lost my place.

The performances start out subtle and each character has a powerful defining moment. I was with each of them through their struggle. I empathized with Arlin Dixon’s Mab, the pain she feels of cutting an emotional tie and her fight to maintain her integrity. My heart broke for Julia Course’s Mog, troubled and unloved, sarcastic and depressed, but who finds strength to rise from the depths with renewed purpose. My favourite journey was that of Craig Pike’s Ben. Pike’s accent may waver but his performance is consistent, building in intensity to a haunting and explosive climax.

Days after the performance I am still haunted by the mystical aspect of all three stories and the overarching story of the Ness. I am compelled by the power of nature and the impact one’s physical environment has on character and destiny. Fishskin Trousers reminds us that we are connected to each other, if not by time, then by place or circumstance.


Photo of Arlin Dixon, Craig Pike and Julia Course by Matt Gorman