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I have to admit that this one passed me by. Although I thought I had kept up with the numerous small and out-of-the-way theatre companies in the Triangle, Ward Theatre Company, which opened in Durham in early 2016, was news to me barely a month ago. Like many of its other storefront colleagues, Ward is located in a most unlikely place: a very small office park near the Five Oaks subdivision in southwest Durham. There is no attempt to make it appear “theatrical” from the outside; the actual space is no bigger than a large living room, but, most likely, with a lot less character or personality. It is a rectangular room with nice, light wooden floors, four walls, and a ceiling. Seating is for 25-30 persons, depending on the production. However, once the show starts, you are transported as far away from middle-class suburban business as you can get.
Before getting into I Wish You a Boat, the actual show being scrutinized here, it is critical to mention the Meisner acting technique, which was used as the basis of this production. With limited space here, I suggest that the reader get a fuller understanding from this entry, which states, “Exercises for the Meisner technique are rooted in repetition so that the words are deemed insignificant compared to the reactions.” The Meisner technique’s goal is that actors “get out of their heads” and behave instinctively to their surrounding environment.
Wendy Ward founded Ward Theatre Company in New York City in 2005; I Wish You a Boat was then, and continues to be, its signature production. Based on the sinking of the British ship The Merry Rose in 1897, this is a fascinating examination of class, varying perspectives of the same incident, and even the very timely subjects of immigration and the value of lives “different” from our own.
The play begins in a nautical courtroom where two judges are hearing testimony to decide whether the captain of the ship is to be held criminally liable for running the ship into rocks, causing it to sink, resulting in about 130 deaths. Testimony from a steward and a laundress helps render the ruling in the captain’s favor.
Next comes a scene best described as a darkened, slow-motion ballet depicting the actions of the staff and crew in directing the first class passengers to the lifeboats. This is quite moving and effective, for a while, but eventually proves to be a “know when enough is enough” situation, and from my view it ended up overstaying its welcome.
The next scene or “setting” (as described in the very lovely, clever, and creative programs left on the seats for each audience member) is the meat of the play as far as revealing the story behind the crash, sinking, and rescue operation. We are back in the nautical courtroom for further inquiries, and it is no surprise that nearly all the witnesses/survivors are first-class passengers protecting their elevated class as well as the captain and crew’s behavior. The only hint of humor or relief from the otherwise grim story is the appearance of a socialite couple, played with spot-on delicious British haughtiness by Kate Sheffield and Ryan Fleming, where the wife constantly interrupts and speaks for her doctor husband. A lengthy, near soliloquy by Amber Oliver fell a bit flat as she seemed more concerned with her accent than the content. We eventually learned of the horrendous treatment of those “others” in steerage: non-English-speaking immigrants, many of whom were shot trying to get to the main deck and to the boats as the ship was sinking. With the last witness, and just about at the halfway point of the play, came the last word of English that the audience would hear.
There are nine actors in I Wish You a Boat, nearly all playing dual roles. The rest of the play dealt with these immigrants, speaking Polish, Ukrainian, Albanian, French, and maybe other languages, during their time in steerage on the ship and then going chronologically backwards to glimpses of their lives before they began their ill-fated voyage. While I admire Ms. Ward’s direction and the actors’ ability to speak these languages with passable authenticity, and the very general understanding of what probably was being said, after a while it just seemed too gimmicky. Would you go hear a string quartet if they played half the program perfectly miming a performance, but the music was missing? It’s different if there is just a passing foreign language phrase here and there, but this was a lot of dialogue going on for about forty minutes. Perhaps this is an extreme example of the Meisner technique (abandoning the English language for audiences who only speak English certainly deems words as insignificant), but, to me, it felt like an inside joke with the audience left out.
However, the depiction of the actual ship’s impact and the rising water was masterful and terrifying, perhaps the best of the play. The music, a mix of Brian Eno, Bartók, Stravinsky, and various ethereal and atmospheric choral works, was compelling without being intrusive. The period costumes were stunning and, judging by the near complete paucity of sets, maybe the biggest expense for this production.
Despite some of my comments, I Wish You a Boat is unlike any play you will ever see, profoundly moving, engaging from start to end. Support this new member of the Triangle theatrical community; find the office park where they reside and see this play.
I Wish You a Boat continues through Sunday, August 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
This review was edited by Matthew Hager, CVNC Theatre Editor.