Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit. By Joe Forbrich. Directed by Lou Contey. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
Never underestimate an economy's power to sway a man's moral judgement, be him a modern day energy CEO or a 19th-century New England Quaker. There's an awful lot of that transpiring onboard the final voyage of the titular Essex, whose ill-fated 1819 journey is recreated and examined in Joe Forbrich's historical drama and animated with gusto in Lou Contey's Shattered Globe Theatre production, but not always in the way you'd think.
As the ship's company store purser (Alif Muhammad) puts it to a young, bravado-filled seaman (Drew Schad) early in the three-year whaling expedition, even if everything goes as planned, inflated living expenses and uneven shares all but guarantee everyone but the higher-ups will wind up in the red. Compared to the rousing 15-men shanties sung on the desk (impressive in scale and function in Theater Wit's space thanks to a seamless marriage of Ann Davis's set and Michael Stanfill's projection design) or harpooning excursions in hunting boats, it's a short and underplayed scene, but a massively disconcerting omen. After all, when your industry is already known for lashings, epic battles against nature and profit-by-bloodletting, who are you to trust when things go south and your best interests aren't at heart from the powers that be?
Both captain and crew are forced to answer that question when a massive sperm whale levels the Essex to wreckage. Stranded in three harpoon boats turned life boats, the few survivors weather hunger, lapses of faith, dementia, cannibalism and each other to return home—and even then, the horrors of the sea creep in.
If that sounds at all like a familiar required-reading epic, you're not wrong; though the way it's presented in the end is a little coy, a framing device sets up a proprietor (Ben Werling) to relay the story in hindsight to a young couple, one of whom is famous in his own right.
Forbrich makes sure to smoothly slip in contextual details to help inform and color the action, and it helps. By the time naive and respect-lacking Captain George Pollard (Brad Woodard) takes his post, we learn that the Atlantic Ocean has=s already been over-sourced, driving the crew out further and further to the Pacific. Later, when we see the desperate and scared faces contemplating their fate in either direction, the sense of isolation has already set in. In the press release, it's noted that Forbrich is himself a sailor who spent time in Martha's Vineyard as a boat builder, and some of the richest language happens to be the most technical—cooking blubber, nautical navigation and harpoon throwing all get borderline scientific, even romantic descriptions. Under Contey's direction, none of it overshadows the human drama at the center of it all, even in such a large cast.
Ensemble-wide, it's a thoughtful, often dashing real-life adventure that shines new light on the evermore famous fiction it inspires.