Theater 2014-15: Shattered Globe hoists sail with historic saga of Pacific whaling disaster
Third in a series of season previews: “The Whaleship Essex,” first play by company ensemble member Joe Forbrich, recalls the rogue whale attack that inspired Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Season opens Sept. 3.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
The 24th season at Shattered Globe Theatre opens in the spray, rage and terror of Joe Forbrich’s new play “The Whaleship Essex,” a sea thriller that dramatizes an incident in 1820 when the whaling vessel Essex was attacked and destroyed by a giant whale.
Forbrich’s play, which had its premiere this summer at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, joins Tennessee Williams’ classic “The Rose Tattoo,” a gentle romantic comedy set in the deep South, in an American pairing that will account for two-thirds of Shattered Globe’s 2014-15 season. The third show has not yet been announced.
It was the calamity of the Essex that inspired Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.” But Forbrich, a first-time playwright and longtime Shattered Globe ensemble member, did not extract his stage version from Melville; rather he has reframed author Nathaniel Philbrick’s account of the incident in his best-selling 2000 book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.”
And it is pitched battle with the leviathan of Forbrich’s play that occupies Shattered Globe and its first-year producing artistic director Sandy Shinner as the new season approaches.
“It’s a huge survival adventure story, a first-person narrative from the few who survived,” says Shinner. “It’s a really strong immersive experience where the audience and the environment are in close connection.”
Long before drilling and fracking, rendered whale blubber provided an essential source of oil for many purposes. The Essex was on a typical whale hunt in the Pacific Ocean when it ran afoul of a monster whale described as 85 feet long. The creature assaulted the ship, smashing its sides and pummeling it from below. As the Essex went down, a small group of sailors escaped in harpoon boats.
In 2008, Forbrich built and sailed his 16-foot boat Jenny from Long Island to Martha’s Vineyard to spend the summer apprenticing as a boat-builder by day, while working by night as an actor at The Vineyard Playhouse. It was on this trip that he first heard the story of the Essex, and the idea for his play was born.
The 2014-15 season in brief:
- “The Whaleship Essex” by Joe Forbrich (Midwest premiere, Sept. 3-Oct. 11 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.): Stylized sets and sea chanties help to recreate the sea-going adventure of the doomed whaling ship Essex in this play based on a historical incident in the Pacific Ocean in 1820, when a giant whale turned on the vessel, sinking it and leaving few survivors to tell the tale. “Joe’s play captures the theme ‘for what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul,’” says director Lou Contey. “In a world constantly challenged by climate change and dependence on fossil fuels, the story of ‘The Whaleship Essex’ is even more relevant as it examines mankind’s hubris in relationship to his environment. The play shows that the relentless pursuit of oil, in any era, has a price beyond the cost of a barrel of oil. It may cost us our humanity, indeed our very existence.”
- “The Rose Tattoo” by Tennessee Williams (Jan. 20-Feb. 28, 2015, at Theater Wit): The story, set in an Italian-American community on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, concerns a passionate Sicilian widow, Serafina Delle Rose, who hides herself in the hazy memory of the husband she idealized – though he was killed smuggling illegal goods on the highway. The earthy eroticism of the play is unleashed as an unknown truck driver pulls into town and disturbs Serafina’s quiet life. These two equally matched and impulsive characters develop an almost operatic relationship: Serenaded by exuberant townspeople, Serafina is finally delivered from her past memories and grief. The play premiered in Chicago in 1950 before opening Broadway on Feb. 3, 1951. It received four Tony Awards, including Best Play. Adapted into a film in 1955, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, receiving three. “It’s a Valentine,” says Shinner, “and we’ll be doing it around Valentine’s Day. We all need a bright spot in the winter. There’s great emotional depth in the play and the language is wonderfully lyrical.”
- Third play TBA.
All three of Shattered Globe’s 2014-15 productions will be presented at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., in the Lakeview neighborhood. It’s an easy 10-minute walk from the Belmont stop on the Red Line.
- Official website of Shattered Globe Theatre: ShatteredGlobeTheatre.org
- The historic whaleship Essex: Read about it here
- A guide to Tennessee Williams and “The Rose Tattoo”: Read it here
- Review of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Our Country’s Good” produced by Shattered Globe: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Jerry Sterner’s “Other People’s Money” produced by Shattered Globe: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” produced by Shattered Globe: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s “Her Naked Skin” produced by Shattered Globe: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com