By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
One of British playwright Pam Gems’ early stage successes was Dead Fish, which has since been renamed Dusa, Fish, Stas & Vi. First seen as a part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1976, Dusa, Fish, Stas & Vi was a unique feminist play dealing with real-world issues confronting women.
Among the issues confronted by the play were those dealing with abuse and abandonment by a spouse, divorce, child stealing and how to be a breadwinner in a society that favored men over women.
Later, Gems adapted other playwright’s works, but at this time in her career, she wrote in the style of the lower class she hoped to capture. There are other issues she covers in this play including anorexia nervosa, mental illness, depression and drug and alcohol abuse, which many of the women in the play use to soften the societal blows they encounter.
Lucy Faust, one of the great young film actors (“Mudbound”) and veteran of the New Orleans (The Glass Menagerie) and New York (Judith and Vinegar Joe) stages, has stepped into the role of lead producer with a partnership with Andrea Watson’s Fat Squirrel Productions for Dusa Fish, Stas & Vi currently on the boards (upstairs) at Bryant Park.
Both Faust as Dusa and Watson as Fish star as half of the quartet of women sharing a flat in London in 1976 and both deliver powerful performances. Dusa has no job and no money and is embroiled in a very tumultuous divorce. Her abusive husband has been granted custody of her children because he is the sole income provider and the court believes he can best care for them. Estranged from her children, she becomes frantic when they all disappear.
Meanwhile, Fish is hoping to reconcile with her boyfriend, who has taken up with another woman. A successful lecturer and advocate for socialist causes, she has enjoyed a moderate level of success. But the split with her paramour has shaken her to her core and she spends her time obsessing over him, imagining he is following her, when in fact she is stalking him and his new girlfriend. She requires the emotional support of Dusa and the others to give her life balance.
Watson and Faust share a sofa in one special scene late in the two-act play. It is a sheer joy to see them plunge into their characters and for the audience to experience what can only be stated is a beautiful gift of quality acting between them.
The other two actresses – Desirée Burrell as the streetwalker Stas (short for Anastasia) and Susan Gordon as the anorexic and neurotic Vi – are also quite good in their roles. Stas views her life with a realistic attitude that suggests being a sex trade worker is the best she can do. Having to put up with the occasional outbreak of syphilis is an occupational hazard, she reasons. Sometimes for the thrill, she “pinches” – steals – a garment or overcoat to stay warm. She has great empathy for the others and has the biggest heart in the group.
As Vi, Gordon is perhaps the oddest of the odd birds roosting in this particular nest. Suffering from her eating disorder, Vi finds it difficult to swallow a nut or a even a kipper. Psychologically, she is withdrawn and finds solace by reading magazines and books. Yet, she is connected to her flatmates in ways the others are not. Late in the play, there is more than a mere suggestion she is bisexual, but she seems to be more asexual than anything else.
Liz Power, who spends most of her time in New York, directed the work, which still has a great deal of viability and relevance some 11 years after Gems’ death.The last of the characters might be the stage design and the sound design of the radio by Alex Smith that provides the soundtrack for the women’s tortuous lives. Smith is also responsible for the lighting design and additionally serves as the fight choreographer. Chairs have been mounted on two levels on opposite sides of the stage with one exit representing the sleeping area, another representing access to the kitchen and a third being the front door. Power selected music from the period to set the mood for the time.
The problems these women experience are traumatic, but banding together they are able to support one another and make the unbearable moments somewhat tolerable. Gems’ dialog is gritty and evocative of the British lower class, oftentimes with slang words. Surprisingly, though, there is little profanity.
Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi could easily be deemed a period piece and dismissed, but unfortunately much of what it has to say about the place for women in society has not changed since the 1970s. Gems is still relevant in her supposition that life is hard for women like those she created. The temporary family they have erected in their flat is an invaluable support system, but it is a fragile one that must be tended to lest there be major consequences.
Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi (2 hours), produced by Lucy Faust in partnership with Fat Squirrel Productions and directed by Liz Power, continues at Bryant Park, 1131 Tchoupitoulas (second floor), Mon. – Thurs. at 7:00 p.m. through August 18. Tickets are available here.