The “seafaring life” has taken many forms over time: fearless explorers, bloodthirsty pirates, hopeful pilgrims, grizzled Hemingway-esque mariners, and modern sailors endlessly plying vast shipping routes. This weekend, magnetic Portuguese actor Diogo Infante blended these and other visions of life on the waves into the thrilling Maritime Ode, a one-man Kennedy Center production celebrating the freedom, mystery, adventure, danger, and solitude of the open seas.
The poem “Maritime Ode” is a signature work of Portuguese poet Alvaro De Campos, also known as Fernando Pessoa. Written in 1915, it flows as a sort of artistic stream of consciousness, following the narrator’s mental journey through the entire history of seafaring. One can vividly picture De Campos scribbling away while staring out on tall ships circling a Portuguese harbor and daydreaming of far-off destinations. The author has poured a lifetime’s worth of hopes, dreams, and regrets into a dreamlike chronology of maritime life.
This epic, demanding work has found an ideal dramatic vessel in Mr. Infante. While U.S. audiences may not know his body of work, in his native Portugal, Mr. Infante is a star of stage and screen. His years of experience with Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Tennessee Williams echo within his layered performance as De Campos’ narrator. Over the course of 70 unbroken minutes, he moves fitfully through stages of youthful wonder, midlife crisis, and calm resignation of old age.
The play begins with Infante wistfully strolling across the stage, recounting romantic notions of tall ships sliding through misty harbors at dawn. He describes the almost metaphysical qualities of seaside life, his ramblings accompanied by soothing guitar played by influential Portuguese musician Joao Gil. Gil’s lilting strains, coupled with Miguel Seabra’s evocative lighting, give the scene a storybook quality.
But the calm doesn’t last long. Soon, Infante grows to resent his quiet shore life and begins to fantasize about swashbuckling pirates. He spirals into wild gyrations, singing “Yo Ho Ho And a Bottle of Rum” at the top of his lungs and swinging about the stage on ropes hung by set designer Fernando Ribeiro. Infante romanticizes the pillage, murder, and rape of pirate lore and even invites torture on himself as the cure-all for his mundane routine. His red-drenched mental breakdown is at turns frightening and darkly humorous.
Just as Infante seems ready to shake apart, a sudden calm sweeps over the stage like the eye of a hurricane. Infante emerges chastened and regretful for his bloodlust – an aged mariner returned to port after a long and terrible voyage. Infante embraces modern, sanitized seafaring and recedes into the gathering dusk. And video designer Pedro Sena Nunes’ projections of roiling waves give way to gentle currents lapping in the moonlight.
While Infante’s powerhouse performance gets the spotlight, director Natalia Luiza bears special mention for her taut direction. Luiza marshals acting, visuals, and music into calculate dramatic beats that hold the audience’s rapt attention for 70 minutes with nary a set change nor intermission.
Maritime Ode has run its course in DC after just two performances, which is a shame for any theater fans that missed out. It was theatrical lightning in a bottle, with a compelling text, powerful acting, and assured direction combining to chart fresh territory for lucky DC audiences. Here’s hoping that the Kennedy Center plans a repeat voyage.
Maritime Ode was performed March 20 and 21, 2015 as part of the Iberian Suite festival at The Kennedy Center.
Reviewed by Ben Demers.