SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA., July 14, 2016 – We begin our trip through the five featured plays now being performed in repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) here on the campus of Shepherd Universities by taking a look at Christina Anderson’s 2014 play entitled “pen/man/ship.”
Receiving its world premiere at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, Anderson’s latest drama is, on the surface, a tale of human drama that takes place on the high seas at the tail end of the 19th century. The premise and the story line of this play are intriguing, at least on the surface. But its tedious, overwrought and largely unlikable characters—ideological types, really—and strange stage setting seem more likely to appeal primarily to an academic audience than to the general public.
The visible plot of this play combines elements of “Moby Dick” and “Mutiny on the Bounty,” while its central character is perhaps drawn from Charles Darwin, during his epic research voyage on the Beagle or, perhaps, modeled on novelist Patrick O’Brien’s introverted physician-naturalist Stephen Maturin as portrayed by Paul Bettany in the 2003 film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”
The “scientific research” mission being conducted on Anderson’s ship, however, is a significant departure from all these models, being more closely allied with the purpose of the notorious prison colonies set up in Australia by Great Britain.
While we never meet the captain of Anderson’s ship, we are first introduced to the quite forceful and autocratic Charles Boyd (Brian D. Coats), a researcher and journal writer who has invested heavily in the ship’s current expedition to Liberia.
Boyd seems to be a nasty piece of work from the outset. High-handed and imperious, he’s a 24/7 virtue signaler, compulsively citing the Bible as he violates its precepts. Holier-than-thou, he feels that “entitlement” is his birthright and is the very embodiment of what today’s academics like to call the “privileged” class.
Attempting to parry Charles Boyd’s thrusts is his hapless son Jacob (Damian Thompson), who’s accompanying his father on the voyage and is his designated victim each Sunday for Bible readings and ensuing, largely one-way “discussions” of the text.
Nominally on Jacob’s side is a mysterious young woman, Ruby Heard (Margaret Ivey) who’s also boarded the ship against the usual custom of the time and who appears, at least at times, to be Jacob’s girlfriend.
The play’s fourth and final character, Cecil (Edward O’Blenis) is a respectful young fellow who, perhaps somewhat naively, befriends Charles and gains the latter’s confidence, as a result becoming the pivot point of the play’s gathering plot arc.
Ruby turns out to be as crafty as Charles is nasty and she eventually helps spearhead a mutiny of the crew, which has grown tired and frustrated with the captain’s and Charles’ condescension and aloofness. Add a stabbing, an accidental death—or is it murder?—along with that mutiny, and soon, we have one big Ship of Fools to deal with on the high seas.
All this sounds like a rollicking good tale on the surface. But both this play’s characters and its plot arc serve only as surface mount for the playwright’s larger issues.
Intermission: A quick aside. Over the years in this writer’s view, CATF dramas frequently seem to coalesce each season around a fairly discernible theme or motif. This year’s festival puts a general focus on the notion of the societal “outsider”—an individual or individuals more or less on the outs with a society that either ignores them or rejects or persecutes them outright.
Pinching in a bit further, all five plays now on stage in Shepherdstown—four written by women and one by a man—hone in on that idea further by focusing to a great extent on the trials and tribulations of being a woman in societies that don’t value women as much as men.
Moving in a bit further still, the two CATF 2016 plays authored by black women – Christina Anderson and Chisa Hutchinson—pursue, for better or worse, the current #BlackLivesMatter meme, an observation supported by the in-depth interview pieces that appear in this year’s comprehensive CATF program guides.
In “pen/man/ship,” Anderson’s first unusual move is to employ an all-black cast, which, implicitly, includes not only the cast members we see on stage, but also the sailors and the captain we don’t see. This would seem to have been a deliberate choice on the part of the playwright to universalize the notion of an over-arching and repressive male patriarchy over the narrower idea that such a patriarchy is the exclusive domain of white men. At least it seems that way. Yet this would appear to be contrary to the playwright’s intent as stated in the program notes.
In Anderson’s play, Charles Boyd plays the haughty, oppressive, condescending patriarch. Having received considerable education and having earned considerable esteem over many years, it’s clear to us from the outset that he feels blessed, privileged and decidedly superior to pretty much everyone else aboard ship, to the point where he refuses to leave his quarters for the most part, lest he debase himself by mixing with the hoi polloi.
Charles clearly serves as a stand-in for America’s current ruling oligarchy, as exemplified every day by the opinions and actions of the mostly-white politicians, consultants, lobbyists and businesspeople who primarily live and work somewhere in the New York-Washington Axis of Evil. Their opinions and actions demonstrate a casual and, at times, an outright malicious attitude for the average American citizen of whatever race, an almost instinctive, haughty disdain that indelibly marks Charles’ character.
At the same time, the sneering, Bible-toting, Bible-quoting Charles is also a thoroughgoing hypocrite. Significantly, we discover that he’s a serious, long-time alcoholic, a fact well known to his son, but perhaps hidden from eyes of the crew that rarely, if ever, sees him above deck.
Charles’ overweening sense of moral and intellectual superiority has led him down the path to hubris, or pride, which, as all fans of Greek drama know, inevitably leads to a fall, big time. In this play, Charles is no exception to the rule, and a cascading series of events soon jeopardizes Charles, the ship, and ultimately, the mysterious mission of this voyage. (No spoilers here.)
Charles, his hypocritical morality, and his sense of superiority are weighed in the balance in this play and are found wanting. The problem is that Charles—as is typically the case with a Hollywood-style, amoral businessman-villain—constantly verges on being a two-dimensional character type. Further, unlike a classic tragic hero, there is little that is redemptive in his character and scant evidence that he really repents the errors of his way.
With such a powerful central character as Charles dominating this play throughout, there is very little room for the other characters to develop. Charles’ son, Jacob, tries to joust intellectually and emotionally with his father, but always fails and generally retreats. Likewise Cecil, this play’s only genuine good guy, who, until the very end, is mesmerized by Charles apparent wisdom and dominance.
The only character that really stands up to Charles is Ruby. But even here, Ruby’s character and motivation don’t withstand closer scrutiny.
In the first place, as is readily recognized at the beginning of the play, the very presence of a woman aboard a research or military vessel in the 19th century is a bit of a stretch, due both to tradition and nautical superstition. But Anderson likely felt the need for a character to serve as her own stand in.
Added to the fact that this play was designed to be anti-patriarchal and anti-hierarchical, inserting a woman into this period plot may have been necessary to provide the perfect foil for Charles. But, when added to Ruby’s bizarrely determined takeover of the crew, her presence and influence seemed, at least to this reviewer, decidedly anachronistic.
Even more problematic is the fact that the implacable, determined Ruby ultimately comes across just as nasty as Charles. Later in the play, we are introduced to at least some of what has motivated her, ranging from a history of abuse to her victimization as a result of post-Reconstruction style “justice.”
Yet all this fails to track logically when it comes to taking over control of a ship and its crew. Furthermore, Ruby proves just as inflexible and self-righteous as Charles, making this play in a way, a kind of moral Hobson’s choice that invites us to choose sides between a highly-flawed male and an equally but oppositely-flawed female. This was probably not the playwright’s intent, but that’s the way this play turns out.
What the audience ends up seeing is a kind of intellectual closet drama that’s so involved with the social dialectic that it ignores character development in favor of the argument. The endless talking and pontificating, particularly by Ruby and Charles, becomes exasperating. There is little hugging and no learning here.
Adding to the problem of this production is the bizarre staging. Props are minimal, consisting primarily of a writing table and a couple of chairs, all immersed in a shallow pool through which the players constantly wade and slosh.
As an audience, we’re immersed in this shallow flood pool itself without a way to figure out what it’s really supposed to mean. Does this represent action that takes place below decks? Are we looking at a mankind that’s always on the verge of drowning in its own imperfections? Or are we somehow supposed to think of the cleansing and redemptive power of water in religion, myth or actuality?
The effect of this dismal, black floodplain was perhaps best expressed by an audience member’s remark I overheard after the show. When asked what he thought of the play, he shrugged and said, “Well, for me, it was sort of an ordeal by water.”
There is sincerity and purpose in “pen/man/ship,” and, during opening weekend, the cast made a tremendous effort to bring this complicated vehicle to life. But in the end, “pen/man/ship” is a bit overwritten, a bit overly-academic, and a bit too theory-bound to draw the audience in. The play has a point of view, but tends to sell it rather than suggest it, becoming, alas, somewhat tedious in the process.
Everyone has an opinion, of course, but this one’s mine. Of the five plays on this year’s CATF roster, this is one I can’t really recommend.
Rating: * (One out of five stars)
Details for CATF 2016:
When: As in previous years, matinee and evening performances are held from Wednesday through Sunday throughout the Festival. CATF 2016 officially opens this Friday and wraps on July 31, 2016. For dates and details, including how to get there, where to stay, etc., visit the CATF website.
Tickets: Single ticket prices are $62. Four-show and five-show discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $112-255. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 and under, and West Virginia residents. We’d note that while tickets may still be available for opening weekend performances, you’ll want to check availability the moment you finish this preview article.
If you’re in the Shepherdstown vicinity, you can purchase tickets directly through the Theater Festival Box Office, open off-season Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. Otherwise, call 800-999-CATF (2283), or visit CATF’s online box office.
Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.
Important Note: If you plan to hang out in the Shepherdstown area for a couple of days to take in most if not all of the plays, be sure to nail arrangements down now for your overnight stay and for dining options. While Shepherdstown has a surprising abundance of rooms and dining choices, a lot of people are in town for the festival and dining reservations, in particular, are a must.
If bookings prove tough, there are additional dining and hotel options in nearby locales such as Charlestown, West Virginia, to the east and a few options in Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to the west.