The Sea Voyage
In Good Company
By John Fletcher and Phillip Massinger
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
Friday, February 19, 2016, C–5&6 (center stalls)
Actors' Renaissance Season
From left, Franville (Aidan O'Reilly), Lamure (John Harrell), Morillat (Jonathan Holtzman) and the Surgeon (Benjamin Reed) prepare to feast on Aminta (Lauren Ballard) in the American Shakespeare Center's production of The Sea Voyage at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.
Lexie Braverman has become adept at steering ships. She is the Boatswain who takes the wheel of King Alonso's ship as it heads into a mighty squall in William Shakespeare's play The Tempest, and she's at the helm of Pirate Albert's ship as it's about to run aground in a sudden storm in John Fletcher's and Phillip Massinger's play The Sea Voyage. This ship wheel is an impressive prop at the center of the Blackfriars Playhouse stage, the American Shakespeare Center's home base in Staunton, Virginia.
This visual link between the two plays is pointed. Written around 1622 by Fletcher (a collaborator on at least three plays with Shakespeare) and Massinger, The Sea Voyage draws on The Tempest in setting, plot devices (storm in the first scene, desert island, castaways, unusual natives, even a fancy banquet), and language, too (one character in The Sea Voyage refers to "A brave new day," echoing Miranda's famous line about a brave new world from The Tempest). Both plays were inspired by real reports of sea adventures to the New World told by English sailors. Both plays were first brought to the stage by The King's Men, Shakespeare's acting company.
And both are sharing the 2016 Actors' Renaissance Season playbill at the Blackfriars. The annual "Ren Season" occupying the theater's winter calendar features 12 actors mounting five Elizabethan, Jacobean, or Restoration plays without a director, without a production team, and without much time. In an average of five rehearsal days, the troupe must work out their own blocking, find their own costumes (most from the ASC's storage), and come up with their own props (most, again, from the ASC's store, but others they make themselves).
That shared prop of the ship's wheel isn't the most significant link between this troupe's production of The Tempest—which opened the season—and The Sea Voyage, the company's fourth effort. It's Braverman, specifically and generically as representative of a gathering of actors who can burnish gold into a glorious gleaming, as they do with The Tempest, and create gold out of doo-doo, as they do with The Sea Voyage. Indeed, this production of The Sea Voyage, despite its elaborately uneven script, establishes this particular company as one of the best troupes I've seen on the Blackfriars stage—and, by virtue of the talent annually gathered by ASC, any stage.
Fletcher was one of the English language's greatest purveyors of words. He has provided previous ASC Ren Seasons with glorious scripts: in addition to his collaborations with Shakespeare (The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII), the company has staged Philaster, which he wrote with Francis Beaumont, his first collaborator. However, the pieces he produced later in his career with Massinger have, perhaps, a bit too much Massinger in them—and I say that basing my opinion solely on the other two Massinger plays I've seen, The Roman Actor (solo) and The Custom of the Country (with Fletcher), both at ASC. As with The Custom of the Country, in The Sea Voyage Fletcher and Massinger show an infatuation for sexual infatuation and social depravity while building a plot on the flimsiest of foundations, storylines that inevitably spin into illogical circumstances but reach pat conclusions.
The plot devices in The Sea Voyage not only include pirates, shipwreck, and castaways but also a tribe of Amazonian women and cannibalism. On a barren island are Portuguese castaways; on a neighboring lush island are Amazonian women. The two islands are separated by a "hellish river" that the starving Portuguese castaways have been too frightened to cross, despite the strange noises coming from the other island and the obvious vegetation over there. Nevertheless, the pirate captain, Albert, swims this river despite being wounded in a brawl. If the Portuguese castaways had made the effort, they would have found their wives—and that is not an allegorical statement. Of course, they will get there in the end by a string of happenstances that also finds the romantic ingénue Aminta reconciling with her lost brother, Raymond, who has been searching the seas for her since she was kidnapped in a pirate raid. Her kidnapper, Albert, is now her betrothed. Albert appreciates Aminta's virtue so much that he not only saves her honor from his lusty crew (and his truehearted first mate saves Aminta's flesh from his hungry companions), he also withstands the advances of one hot Amazonian princess to stay true to Aminta. Some pirate, huh? It's only logical in this world that when Raymond finally gets his chance to exact revenge on Albert, his sister forestalls him (Albert really is a nice pirate, she points out) and the Amazonian princess, Clarinda, finding her way to Albert blocked by his love for Aminta, gives him over for his girlfriend's brother, Raymond.
To be sure, Albert (a heroic Chad Bradford) couldn't go wrong with either Aminta (a lovely Lauren Ballard) or Clarinda (a lovely Braverman, changing from her ship's crew gear into tribal warrior woman wear in doubling the roles). Meanwhile, Clarinda is in a win-win situation with Albert or Raymond, played by a heroic Benjamin Reed (Raymond and Aminta don't get such choices as siblings, though this being a Jacobean play, that's not necessarily a foregone conclusion). Meanwhile, the lusting Amazonian Crocale (a lovely Ginna Hoben) hits on the lust-worthy and wonderfully named Tibalt Dupont (a lust-worthy Patrick Midgley). The other members of the "Female Commonwealth," led by their governess, Rosellia (a warrior-worthy Allison Glenzer), and including Hippolita (the lovely René Thornton Jr.) and Juletta (the lovely Chris Johnston) end up with their men—past and future—including the Master of the Ship (a comic Allison Glenzer) and the Portuguese castaways, Sebastian (the handsome René Thornton Jr.) and his nephew, Nicusa (the handsome Chris Johnston).
I know this all sounds a bit weird and redundant, especially my using physical attributes with everybody. However, there's more to those descriptors than meets the eye; and I haven't gotten to the four stooges who comprise the comedic core of this production, if not the play (it's hard to tell if Fletcher and Massinger intended the cannibal scene to be as funny as it's presented here). Given such little time and no unified direction, the actors have to collectively go with their initial reactions to the script and forge a unified whole. That they do so with The Sea Voyage is a testament to their individual and ensemble talents and trust.
Bradford, Ballard, Braverman, and Reed are playing archetypes as Albert, Aminta, Clarinda, and Raymond, but they subtly craft their presentations to give us singularly engrossing characters rather than caricatures, especially Bradford's take on the goodhearted pirate. Glenzer shows off her well-established Blackfriars reputation as a superior comic actress (when playing the ship's Master) and tragic actress (when playing Rosellia), the Amazonian leader whose edict against men comes from a deep and still-festering wound borne of a great loss (it's notable that she not only outlaws men but turns her band of abandoned women into warriors capable of besting pirates). Midgley is playing to recent typecasting as the bombastic braggart, but with Tibalt Dupont he backs his words up with true brawn. Though his boisterous temperament is so complete—"Fighting is as nourishing to me as eating," he says when the crew is dealing with famine—Midgley uses a sincere reading of Tibalt's sense of duty to endear the character to us. The only thing that seems to dampen his spirit is, when imprisoned by the Amazons, he complains of having to eat "your moldy cheese," a phrase Midgley smears across the aural landscape like spackling on a wall.
As for Thornton and Johnston, they are lovely women—and I use that verb are instead of make because they play their parts so truthfully that both could pursue careers as drag queens. The laughter that comes with their first appearances as Hippolita and Juletta is triggered by the authenticity with which they play their parts: neither actor engages in camping, except during the intermission when Thornton sings "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and blows a kiss to the audience.
Crocale (Ginna Hoben) of the Female Commonwealth tops pirate Tibalt Dupont (Patrick Midgley) in Fletcher's and Massinger's The Sea Voyage at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.
Truth is also the keenest attribute of the performances by John Harrell as Lamure, "an usuring merchant," Aidan O'Reilly as Franville, "a vainglorious gallant," and Jonathan Holtzman as Morillat, "a shallow-brained gentleman" (these descriptors are in the 1647 folio edition of the play). In the opening shipwreck scene, O'Reilly and Harrell stare out from the stage's trap door with expressions that could be dictionary illustrations accompanying the definition of stupidity. Even before they say a word they have the audience in stitches, and when they do deliver their lines, they ooze vileness juxtaposed with their dumb and dumber demeanors. Harrell, O'Reilly, and Holtzman, with Reed joining them as the pirate ship's clueless, seasick surgeon, approach their characters with hilarious seriousness.
These are actors; they are crazy by genetic necessity. Put a dozen of them together in the pressure cooker of producing this bizarre play in one week while already performing a repertoire of Shakespeare's The Tempest and Measure for Measure and Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women (none of those are light lifting), you can't imagine the creative zaniness they engender. Fortunately, for us, they can imagine and engender many golden comic moments and one classic visual, the cannabilism scene. The starving Lemure, Franville, Morillat, and Surgeon are complaining about the lack of food when Aminta enters, faint with hunger herself but also wondering when her Albert will return from that other island across the hellish river (he's currently negotiating with his captors, the Amazons, to get them to provide food for his crew in exchange for sex with his crew). The four stooges determine to make Aminta their next meal, and as she soliloquizes they sneak up behind her, knives and forks at the ready, red-checkered napkins tucked in their collars. When she finally notices them, they admit, "We'll eat your ladyship," but Tibalt enters in the nick of time to stave off their hunger strike.
Later, imprisoned by the women, the four stooges are bound and lying on the floor complaining that they have had no drink when Tibalt holds a wine bottle above them. The four roll over and open their mouths like puppies begging for a treat. This is the only wink-wink moment in the performance as Midgley's Tibalt glances at the audience with a "do I dare?" expression before pouring drink into the bound supplicants' mouths. Cast members reported in an audience talkback afterward that these moments "just happened" in the rehearsal process, an example of how all of these individuals can get on the same page as a matter of course.
There's a sense of danger in these Ren Season performances—theatrical danger that comes with ensemble self-direction, short rehearsal times that lead to improvisational moments, and what the actors call "textual instability" (i.e., forgetting their lines, hence the need for a prompter on the side). There's actor ego in these productions, too, the need to get the crowd all-in. However, with this company, it's a collective ego. As Tibalt Dupont would tell you, they have a duty not just to the audience but to the playwrights and to the ASC mission of demonstrating the enduring value of early modern English theater in the kind of environs in which it originated. Bet you were laughing so hard watching The Sea Voyage you didn't realize you were being enlightened.
April 20, 2016