Founding member of Shattered Globe Joe Forbrich melded his theatrical and nautical experiences to pen this whale tale. In 2008, Forbrich was an apprentice shipbuilder by day and an actor by night. During this East Coast stint, he became versed in the shipwreck of the Essex. The whale attack on the Essex was the inspiration for the classic novel Moby Dick. Forbrich used survivors’ personal narratives to tell this tale of guts and guilt.
In the first act, the crew, ship protocols and whaling techniques are all introduced. Costume Designer Sarah Jo White dresses the primarily male ensemble in various 1819 period clothing to show rank. The black crew members are in rags. The local Nantucketians are in weathered attire. And the Captain, his officer and his young protégés are suited in gentlemen maritime outfits. White visually establishes the differences among the mates. And from the start, a fierce Joseph Wiens (Chase) reinforces that authority rule. The colorful Weins plays the outspoken first mate. As he institutes his jurisdiction, he effectively undermines the leadership of the captain (played by Brad Woodard). Throughout the show, Woodard’s subtle greed and indecisiveness showcase him as the rich ship owner more than a respected sea captain.
Towards the end of Act 1, Forbrich gives us a down and dirty whale ravishing lesson. The crew verbalize and pantomime the harvesting of whale parts. The brutality and insensitivity not only sets up the rationale for a whale to take revenge, it also foreshadows the uncomfortable savagery to come. After the whale crashes their ship, the crew must survive months at sea in life boats. Their living – no more accurately their dying, is the bulk of the second act. What these starving and dehydrated men must do to prolong existence is gut-wrenchingly unforgettable.
Director Lou Contey orchestrates this as a virtual and audio spectacle. Aided by his design team, Contey pulls the audience into the sea to experience the gritty hardship. Black and white projections (designer Michael Stanfill) illustrate the terror of an upcoming storm and the equally frightening calm seas. The isolated desperation is palpable. The men leave Set Designer Ann Davis’ ample ship to paddle across the stage on benches. The imagery is powerful. The audio matches the visual. Sound designer J.J. Porterfield pipes in the ocean soundtrack: waves, seagulls, thunder. Contey has his talented ensemble add in their own sound effects. Paddles beat out a tribal panic. At first, the men sing sea shanties full of playful camaraderie. Later, the soulful melodies resonate with a hollow gloom.
Forbrich couches the Essex voyage as a recollection. The narrator (played by the stately Ben Werling) connects the thirty year old story to the 1850s present. The ending satisfies as a tribute to whale attack survival. Forbrich’s story is not a heroic folktale, it’s the tarnished reality. The veracity was a disturbing look at humanity. THE WHALESHIP ESSEX harpooned me in the side and dragged me gulping through the tumultuous waters. Although I was glad to set foot on land after such a long journey, I definitely believe THE WHALESHIP ESSEX is see-worthy!
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes an intermission
At Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Written by Joe Forbrich
Directed by Lou Contey
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Thru October 11th
Buy Tickets at www.theaterwit.org
Production photo courtesy of Emily Schwartz.
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