Bucket Club’s inventive Fossils is one of the quirkier Brits Off Broadway 2017 entries so far, with its plastic dinosaur people and range of questionable accents. If the script doesn’t equal the rich world that the company conjures through sound and light, the play is still a beautiful reminder of the diverse material that Britain’s robust training system and government arts subsidies can produce.
Vanessa (Helen Vinten) is an emotionally repressed research scientist (a reactionary cliché that is so far beyond its sell-by date it’s almost fresh again) who pours all her time and energy into a brilliant young career to avoid dealing with the trauma from her father’s disappearance while monster-hunting at Loch Ness when she was a teenager.
Now a laboratory research fellow at a university in “the lawnmower theft capital of Norfolk,” Vanessa supervises grad students Dominic (Adam Farrell) and Myles (Luke Murphy). When new images of the monster surface in the news, Vanessa (the name similarity is intentional; one Nessie feels supplanted by her father for another) is inundated with calls for comment from reporters. She wants nothing to do with it until Nature commissions a feature from her. Ever the careerist, she swallows her reservations and tricks Dominic into driving her to Loch Ness, where her stringently ordered life begins to unravel as she begins her own search for evidence and closure.
Fossils is devised theater, which is big across the Pond but still hasn’t quite caught on here. It’s a form of improvisational collective creation, often wrangled by a director and dramaturg, in which company members have a hand in the performance’s writing and staging. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe (not to mention London’s pub theaters), where this show played, overflows with devising companies like Bucket Club (which is based at the delightfully named Farnham Maltings arts center in Surrey): young, talented, energetic, overwhelmingly white, creating work that is looser and more lively than much scripted theater, but narratively all over the place.
One of the great virtues of devised work is company chemistry, and Vinten, Farrell, and Murphy have it in spades. They act, sing, play instruments, and create the play’s soundscape with synthesizers and looping machines; they clearly relish the work and take pleasure in one another’s presence.
Rebecca Jane Wood’s unassuming set consists of a table for the sound equipment with Ikea-ready plastic drawers, and two fish tanks. The skeletal set (pun intended) is fleshed out by Joe Price’s moody lights and David Ridley’s music and exquisite sound design. The music is just about perfect, in fact: minimalist 80s new wave in the jargon-heavy first portion, ethereal harmonium and electric violin in the more somber, waterlogged second half; it would be fascinating to see what Ridley could accomplish with a proper musical.
If only there were a more interesting story to hang it all on. Director Nel Crouch (daughter of metatheatrical enfant terrible Tim Crouch, whose My Arm played the fest way back in 2004) keeps things moving at a nice clip, and the play demonstrates a thorough understanding of academic life (despite its hackneyed character types), but as Vanessa nears her goal, the play putters to an unsatisfying non-ending. A sub-plot about an expensive piece of borrowed equipment is raised and inexplicably dropped, and Vinten can’t quite manage to sell Vanessa’s sudden change of heart when Nature comes calling.
People are taking to the streets to assert the validity of scientific pursuit and climate change. The theater is still one of the best places to tell their stories; in a few years, when Bucket Club’s thought matches their ambition, they will be just the company to tell them.
Bucket Club’s Fossils runs through May 14 at 59E59 (59 E. 59th St.) as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.