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When leviathan turns fury on ‘Whaleship Essex,’ it’s a rough voyage to salvation in tiny boats

Submitted by on Sep 16, 2014 – 4:32 pm

Whaling boats become lifeboats when Leviathan sinks the Essex, as narrator (Ben Werling, rear) recalls the story. (Emily Schwartz)“The Whaleship Essex” by Joe Forbrich, produced by Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit through Oct. 11. ★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Shattered Globe Theatre’s ambitious staging of “The Whaleship Essex,” ensemble member Joe Forbrich’s retelling of an early 19th-century whaling catastrophe, is the sheer scope and rigor of the enterprise. It is a tale of man’s hubris meets nature’s fury on the high seas. And to put it mildly, the greedy, ravaging interlopers get sprayed.

The ship's captain (Brad Woodard) fires a shot to quiet his frightened crew as they flee their sinking vessel. (Emily Schwartz)Before black oil was tapped from the earth, the emerging world of industrialism got its lamp fuel and lubricant from the blubber of whales; and to meet that insatiable demand, whaling ships hunted the great creatures until they were effectively exterminated from the Atlantic Ocean. Whereupon the relentless harvest was extended into the Pacific.

But in a legendary incident of 1820, one rebellious leviathan, itself of greater length than the pursuing vessel, turned on the hunters, attacked their ship and sank it. Only a handful of the crew survived – after months at sea in whaling boats transformed into lifeboats. It was the story of the whaleship Essex that inspired Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick” – and which Forbrich has adapted in the present stark, raw and fearsome drama.

The two acts of Forbrich’s play might be subtitled “The Ship” and “Adrift.” In the first part, we become familiar with the vessel – vividly evoked mast and wheel by set designer Ann Davis. And we meet the American crew, mostly white with a few Negroes who receive half pay, half rations and grudging respect. Overseer to them all is a hard-bitten first mate (Joseph Wiens), who punctuates his severe rule with sharp stings from his bullwhip.

Harsh First Mate Owen Chase (Joseph Wiens) confronts crew members (Darren Jones, left, and Alif Muhammad). (Emily Schwartz)Here indeed is a motley crew, many of them green novices about to discover a reality at odds with their romantic vision of whaling on the briny sea. Among them are the mystical cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, played with luminous sweetness by Angie Shriner; a strapping, cocky first-time seaman (Drew Schad); a petulant veteran boatsteerer and unrepentant racist (Zach Bloomfield); a stalwart second mate dying of consumption (Josh Nordmark); the genteel captain of this rough gang (Brad Woodard), and his young cousin (Antonio Zhiurinskas) out to win his manhood.

Yet one well might count the ship and Michael Stanfill’s graphic projections of rolling seas and tumbling vessel as additional characters, so central are they to the line and resonance of the narrative. All told, it’s an exceptional achievement by a production team that also includes costumer Sarah Jo White, lighting designer Shelley Strasser Holland and sound designer J.J. Porterfield.

The account itself is told as an adventure remembered by a man in his middle age (Ben Werling), whose specific recollection suggests he might have been on that ill-fated voyage.

Ill-fated whale hunters bear down on their quarry in the tale of the Essex bold by narrator Ben Werling (rear left). (Emily Schwartz)Director Lou Contey’s organized chaos peaks with the attack by the great whale. We don’t need to see the beast: We see the men, and their astonishment and dread. Only after the whale has demolished the Essex does the human drama begin.

With what provisions – including water – they can salvage from the sinking ship, some 12 or 15 survivors set afloat in three whaling boats, the small launches normally used to chase down and kill whales spotted from aboard ship. Discord bordering on mutiny erupts over what to do next as this pathetic little cluster of men bob on the Pacific’s illimitable expanse.

Unimaginable suffering lies ahead, hunger, thirst and death. This second part of the play doubtless posed the greater challenge to the playwright, who largely manages to hold our attention while negotiating that tricky line between mind-numbing desperation and physical exhaustion on the one hand and mere dramatic inertia on the other.

The winding down of so vast a tale, bringing the epic play to its final curtain, is arguably the most elusive facet of the work. Forbrich takes some plausible shortcuts, leaving us to draw our own conclusions. But alas, he can’t resist using a heavy black marker to underscore the contemporary relevance of this parable of man’s avarice and abuse of the natural world.

There’s also a final line that put me in mind of Bob Hope’s “Call me Bwana.” Anyway, I thought it was funny – for a bad idea, I mean.

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