This “Maritime Quest for Truth,” starts as passages from a journal or log of an elder statesman on board, Charles Boyd, also referred to as “Sir Charles” because of his sophisticated manner and status. It’s apparently his boat and mission. He contracted the crew on this voyage of an old whaling ship to Africa in 1896.
The play opens with Charles and his son, Jacob immersed in Bible recitation to observe the Sabbath. Both sitting ram-rod straight in their chairs, with no distraction and minimal deviation from the Biblical text. The routine changes when Jacob reveals that he has allowed a woman to join on the journey–she was too seasick to be announced before, but is now ready to be introduced. Just the thought of having a woman on the ship changes the dynamics of the journey, and once she emerges, her impact is immediate.
Mild and reticent at first, Ruby slowly starts to find her voice, offers her own interpretation of scripture, disagrees with Sir Charles and speaks her mind, putting Jacob in the middle of the uncomfortable discourse. Ruby impacts everything, including connecting with the Captain and crew in ways that Charles never could or would.
The purpose and full mission of this journey to Liberia stays shrouded in mystery for most of the play, with only glimmers about what the destination means to the characters, freed from bondage and oppression.
The remarkable set by Kris Stone includes a floor space entirely coated in water and a large rectangular sheath fluttering above on a makeshift masthead. Once the corners are pulled tight, the material lifts to the ceiling and flattens along the upper rafters. The unique visuals, sounds of a creaking wooden hull, fluttering sails and splashing waves anchors the scene firmly on a shipping vessel. And so they sail bound for Africa less than thirty years after Emancipation.
Statesman Charles Boyd is obviously quite full of himself, poised, with exquisite articulation. He holds Bible verses over his son like a whip, demanding nothing but unabashed obedience. Charles is an enigma who lives in his own sense of fervent self-righteousness, totally unaware of his own self-destructive intentions. Brian D. Coats, a classically trained actor steeped in August Wilson, is excellent in portraying this man so unaware of his own delusions in deepest Heart of Darkness moments. Charles seems so lucid, so sure of himself with monetary gains and stature. Yet, he’s so determined to live and die by his own delusional truths that he’d allow everyone to perish at sea rather than stoop to having to explain anything to anybody.
Contemporary American Theater Festival
closes July 31, 2016
Details and tickets
As she did in a previous highly charged and creative work seen at the 2014 CATF, Ashes Under Gate City, playwright Christina Anderson connects complicated concepts, interweaving them throughout the course of her script. The effect is a fascinating inter-connection of issues that usually are not addressed together.
She tackles power struggle for women when her lone female character transitions from being hidden and tucked away to levels of unprecedented (albeit unrealistic) command. It’s a tremendous opportunity for an actress to show her range and Margaret Ivey proves she can do just that as Ruby.
Damian Thompson delivers a fine turn as Jacob, a young man struggling to find his way in the world, figuratively as well as literally. There’s the fatherless young sailor who Charles takes on as a trusted confidant after casting off his own son. Edward O’Blenis plays this role with heart (and a neat stint on the accordion) with a textured layering of awestruck respect for the elder while watching with increasing horror as Charles’s willful belligerence threatens them all.
There’s even an unseen beloved character, Monte, whose death instigates the ship’s turmoil since Charles is implicated. In interviews, the playwright referred to the untoward murder of Trayvon Martin and other black lives in wrong places as she was ruminating on Monte.
The issues swirl and foment while the ship, like the script, tosses and nearly capsizes along the vast stormy sea. The text is filled with poetic charm with exposition about hope, destiny, life choices, truth, and of course, freedom. Still, thorny questions nag us along the journey—not that we want to get bogged down in back-story, but questions about the possible murder of a perceived innocent cloud the drastic ramifications that result. Also, while water always adds a primeval element of excitement, the set design of a full flooring of water raises questions about why? What’s the significance of a water covered floor for an interior room in the ship’s hull? Still, the intriguing story and exchange among the characters is riveting enough to appreciate the exploratory chances taken to launch this amazing vessel and stay the course of this story’s offering.
Several of the “core values” that the Founder and Producing Director Ed Herendeen cites are—“Fearless Art and telling daring and diverse stories…” pen/man/ship stretches the boundaries with full billowing sails, a rough vessel navigating daringly through treacherous waters. It’s a remarkable adventure, worth holding on tightly to the masthead to experience, and will surely be a festival highlight.
Pen/man/ship by by Christina Anderson . Directed by Lucie Tiberghien . Cast: Brian D. Coats, Margaret Ivey, Edward O’Blenis. Damian Thompson . Set Design: Kris Stone . Costume Design: Trevor Bowen . Lighting Design: Tony Galaska . Original Music and Sound Design: Victoria Deiorio . Dialect and Vocal Coach: Kirsten Trump . Stage Manager: Lori M. Doyle . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.