Review: "pen/man/ship" Delivers a Great Voyage for the Audience, If Not the Characters


Written by Christina Anderson

Directed by Lucie Tiberghien

Presented by Molière in the Park and French Institute Alliance Française

December 12, 2020 (live) and December 12-January 4, 2020 (recorded) via YouTube

UPDATE [27 March 2021]: 7 live performances added April 16-24, 2021

Jared McNeill. Photo courtesy DARR Publicity.
If nothing else, Christina Anderson's play pen/man/ship certainly throws into relief that our continuing state of semi-confinement in homes with Netflix and streaming theater is pretty cushy compared to confinement aboard a sail-driven former whaling ship traversing the Atlantic. pen/man/ship continues Molière in the Park's virtual season and marks its compelling first foray into contemporary drama. Dedicated to free theater, Molière in the Park brings this trenchant, engaging production to audiences for the low price of pulling up YouTube (but you can donate here!).

Beginning with some of animator Emily Rawson's silhouette-centered work, the production draws us inside a ship sailing from the United States to Liberia in the fall of 1896. Aside from slightly more than a dozen crewmen, the passengers include Charles Boyd (Kevin Mambo), who hired the ship and crew (though, significantly, he did not commission the voyage itself); his son, Jacob (Jared McNeill), who joins his father every Sunday for a Christian fellowship meeting; and Ruby Heard (Crystal Lucas-Perry), there by way of Jacob and the only woman on board. Charles is dominant, critical, proud, and suspicious of Ruby and why she is there: he initially wonders what she is to Jacob, whose loyalties are rapidly caught between the two. The personal tensions among the three are inextricably bound up with their political and historical context. Everyone aboard is Black, and the Supreme Court's upholding of "separate but equal" and Jim Crow was the final straw for Ruby, a freethinker and fan of doubt who grew up in the South and is determined never again to set foot on U.S. soil. Charles has never been to the South and is more concerned with being "proper" than with politics. Cecil (Postell Pringle), the only crewman with whom Charles has a friendly relationship, can't countenance the idea of living in Africa, holding that God must have brought his grandfather to America for a reason and citing the fight that Black people have waged to make the country theirs. Meanwhile, Charles has not yet revealed even to Jacob the ultimate purpose of their voyage. Before the play's end, relationships and hierarchies will deteriorate and be tested along all axes.
Postell Pringle. Photo courtesy DARR Publicity.
Put to the test as well is Charles's condemnation of Black people accused of crime as reflecting badly on people like him and holding back the race. This nineteenth-century respectability politics is echoed in his classist characterization of the crew as animals and savages. Undermining these easy distinctions, by the play's conclusion, the trio of central characters, guilty or innocent, will all ultimately have undergone or revealed encounters with "justice," legally sanctioned or otherwise. It is not difficult to trace to their current incarnations these issues of incarceration, the stigmatization of justice-involved persons, extrajudicial punishment, and, as Ruby describes it, feeling like a prisoner merely for existing on U.S. soil.
Set design by Lina Younes. Image courtesy DARR Publicity.

Thoughtful, ardent performances by all involved movingly manifest what these humanly flawed characters discover about themselves and their individual resolve as each comes under increasing strain—and all in language redolent with period diction. The production, subtitled in French, also uses real-time mixing of audio and video feeds, courtesy of Liminal Entertainment Technologies, to help create smooth cuts and transitions and a convincing sense of shared space (and, at times, of claustrophobia), as well as to add effects such as a drawing that Jacob is working on as a transparent overlay or being able to watch Jacob talk to Ruby reflected in a mirror in her cabin. Following the performance was an informative Q&A with the cast and crew, touching on topics ranging from working with contemporary material now and in the future; set, shot, sound, and costume design; where the tech for decentralized productions such as this is headed; the animation process and inspirations; and the approach to translation for subtitling.

pen/man/ship provides a richly memorable two-hour tour, so get on board before it sails over the horizon for good.           

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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