BWW Review: CATF PEN/MAN/SHIP is a Dramatic, Dark and Unforgettable Theatrical Voyage
Unlike Anything Goes or some other lighter summer shows set on ships, Christina Anderson's phenomenal new play, pen/man/ship, currently running at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is a stunningly crafted and unforgettable voyage that confronts modern controversial issues, such as race, religion and gender, in an intriguing historical context.
Expertly directed by Lucie Tiberghien, in pen/man/ship, Charles Boyd, an elderly African American businessman, has been charged with hiring and maintaining a crew and ship bound for Liberia in 1896. Several dark issues quickly come to light as Charles' son, Jacob, brings along a woman he recently met on the all-male voyage and the true reason for Charles' unusual voyage is revealed, threatening to cause mutiny and madness among an already sharply divided crew.
Brian D. Coats more than rises to the difficult occasion of leading this small cast as the central and most morally conflicted character, Charles Boyd, with vocal qualities reminiscent of Norm Lewis and an outstanding physical transformation as the character descends further and further into darkness. Coats has the majority of the lines and choices in the show that the audience will disagree with as a righteously moral villain; his impressive feat is that you despise the character while still admiring and, at times, envying his performance skills.
As Charles' son, Jacob, Damian Thompson gives a fiery and independent performance. His passionate arguments with his father were some of the highlights of the production and one of the their excellent confrontations provided some of the most dramatic tension in the show.
Margaret Ivey lets the intelligence and strength shine through Ruby, the only female character in the production. Ivey effortlessly displays the character's determination and conviction as not only the only woman on board a ship filled with male sailors, but an atheist among some devout Christians.
Edward O'Blenis provides an emotional soul to the story as Cecil, a very earnest and down-to-earth sailor. O'Blenis displayed not only immense practicality and adorable awkward moments of humor, but a fantastic transition in Act II as the character takes some drastic measures to restore order to the voyage.
In pen/man/ship, Tiberghien uses some very imaginative and immersive theatrical devices. The entire theater is treated as part of the ship, so expect actors to be sitting near you on the steps of the Marinoff Theater or possibly catching their skirt or trousers on your leg as they brush past your seat. The entire audience is taking the voyage along with the characters, which only magnifies the superb dramatic tension in Act II.
To further enhance the voyage, nautical sound effects, such as dripping water and groaning wood, are frequently employed to provide excellent background sound. The passage of time in the show is relayed through the ship logs read aloud by the main character and the numerous Sabbath services.
Perhaps the most impressive effect was the onstage storm, near the end of Act I, featuring the talents of ensemble crew members Mikayla Bartholomew, Tyler John Fauntleroy and Vincent Ramirez. A large, hanging sail, looming over the stage for most of Act I, is very creatively used to suggest massive tidal storm waves and wind and the lighting, designed by Tony Galaska, very naturally creates the sharp cracks of lightning as both the pace and plot intensify.
pen/man/ship continues to run as one of the five plays in rotating repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. pen/man/ship performances occur in the Marinoff Theater on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. The final performance occurs July 31 at 2:00 PM. For more information about the show schedule, the 2016 season or to order tickets, please visit www.catf.org.
Photo Credit: CATF Media Gallery