Chicago Theatre Review
The Story That Inspired a Literary Classic
The Whaleship Essex – Shattered Globe Theatre
Most great literature is the result of an author’s own experiences or, at the very least, based upon a real event he’s heard about. Young Herman Melville found the inspiration for his 1851 novel Moby Dick while working aboard a whaling ship. There Melville learned from the son of one of the survivors about the Essex, a whaleship that in 1820 had been attacked and sunk by a revengeful sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After many long months drifting at sea only eight of the twenty-member crew were ever rescued. Most of them, including first mate Owen Chase and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, just 14 years old at the time, eventually put their story to paper. Melville adapted these true accounts into what would be considered an American classic.
Much in the same fashion, Joe Forbrich, long-time founding ensemble member of Shattered Globe and a successful actor, writer and man of the sea, has transformed these firsthand accounts into a thrilling play of epic proportions. Staged by prolific, talented Chicago director Lou Contey, utilizing energetic pacing, stylized movement, actor-generated rhythms, sea shanties and hymns sung by a vibrant cast of 15, Forbrich’s play becomes much more than simply an exciting adventure at sea. The story offers obvious parallels between early 19th century America’s unquenchable thirst for oil and today’s unending need for energy. Ecological and ethical questions are raised in this haunting, disturbing, sometimes humorous tale of survival and heroism.
The production is supported by the magnificent talent and artistry of its primarily-female creative team. As she did in SGT’s “Our Country’s Good,” Sarah Jo White offers an array of tailored early19th century costumes for her cast to wear. Ann N. Davis has designed a nautical setting that is as versatile as it is authentic-looking. The Nantucket dock area where the play opens transforms magically into the Essex, which in turn shatters into pieces as it’s attacked by storms and a leviathan from the deep. Seamlessly the stage becomes the open sea upon which three smaller boats, originally portions of the larger design, struggle to stay afloat. All of these magical moments happen, thanks to the united efforts of Shelley Strasser Holland’s wonderful lighting effects, JJ Portland’s deafening sound design and Michael Stanfill’s unbelievable moving projections. Taken together, audiences will almost smell the salty air while feeling the pelting raindrops and the rolling swell of the seas.
Contey’s cast varies in talent, but collectively they are a group of actors with a story to tell. And effectively they tell it, indeed. From the top of the play, a married couple seeking lodging near the Nantucket docks, reveals a mild-mannered Man who teaches writing but longs to become an author himself (who’ll later be revealed as Herman Melville) He’s played by the versatile and commanding Joseph Wiens, later transforming (like the scenery) into sadistic first mate Owen Chase. Talented Brad Woodard plays both the unassuming Nightwatchman as well as the personable, tragic Captain George Pollard, played with dignity and realistic sorrow. Alif Muhammad brings class and gentle authority to Purser William Bond; Lionel Gentle portrays scripture-quoting, hymn-singing Carpenter Lawson Thomas with strength and humanity. Josh Nordmark’s Matthew Joy provides some of the play’s welcomed humor as the ship’s medic; and Angie Shriner (in a well-cast pants role), Antonio Zhiurinskas and especially the always reliable and continually surprising Drew Schad nicely play the crew’s youngest members, Thomas Nickerson, Owen Coffin and Charles Ramsdell.
This harrowing, epic story, made all the more immediate for being factual, is presented by a theatre company who’s constantly upping its game. Shattered Globe once again fulfills its mission to create visceral theatrical experiences for its audience with this masterful work of storytelling and artistry. Added to the excitement generated by this being the play’s Midwest premier, it’s all true, part of our country’s own story, as well as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s great American classic. For students, history buffs and audiences seeking a thrilling evening of theatre, Shattered Globe’s fall production is a definite must-see.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 29-October 11 by Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Theater Wit box office, by calling them at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.