It is a rare pleasure to watch an ensemble as talented and in sync as the one appearing in I Wish You a Boat at the Ward Studio Company. Unfortunately, the play itself, while superbly showcasing the ensemble’s abilities, lacks cohesion. The end result is a series of interesting moments that don’t quite seem to add up to a play.
Creator/director Wendy Ward and her actors set out, over an eight-month period, to create “an original production incorporating music, movement, dialect and style.” They are completely successful in that respect. I Wish You a Boat features both original music and pieces that have been adapted and arranged for the show, all of which subtly embellish the action they underscore. Several scenes feature movement that has clearly been as meticulously choreographed and rehearsed as a ballet. The dialects, coached by Joanne Pattavina, Amy Stoller, Emilia Piechota, Pawel Szczesniak, Paula Pinto-Verdino, Torben Karstens, and Lin Lauren, are spot on, at least to my admittedly untrained ear. Without a doubt, the production is stylish. Lisa Blecker and Abby O’Sullivan’s costumes were wonderful and looked authentically 19th century. The lighting (Jeff Benesh) and sound design (Jeremy Frindel) work with the living room-sized space instead of overpowering it, creating a feeling of intimacy between the audience and actors.
The company is not as successful in creating a drama. The play, which deals with the sinking of a ship called the Mary Rose, is split into two acts: the first dealing with the first class passengers, and the second with those in steerage. I Wish You a Boat focuses primarily on the way the class governed every aspect of life at that time. As a result, the rich people appear, with few exceptions, spoiled, callous, and indifferent to the suffering of those ‘beneath’ them. The steerage passengers, in contrast, are friendly, generous, and selfless, even when facing death. It’s just a little too black and white to be believable.
Another difficulty in the first act is that it relies heavily on materials from the 19th century, including newspapers, cargo manifests, and reports of actual shipwrecks. It is, however, difficult to make newspaper stories, manifests, and trial testimony sound particularly dramatic, even when using interesting dialects. The style of writing will always sound rather dry when read out loud.
The second act goes in a completely different direction and is much stronger because of it. The steerage passengers don’t speak English; their languages are Polish, Portuguese, German, and Swedish. The actors get to show both the frustration of trying to communicate and the joy when communication occurs. The second act is also interesting in that it is not chronological; it begins with the steerage passengers’ last moments on the ship, then provides their back story, which despite not being in English, is still fairly accessible. Perhaps because they are working in a different language, or because they were not bound to historical documents, the actors did their strongest work in this act.
Although all six actors (Christine Brumbaugh, Matt W. Cody, Katia Hoerning, Jay T. Johnson, Suzie Mellring, Lara Silva) were remarkable, Johnson and Silva were both outstanding, playing a young husband emigrating with his pregnant wife and a Portuguese woman starting a new life in America, respectively.
Despite its flaws, Ward and company have created an interesting and unusual piece of theatre. Those people looking for a unique experience, featuring some marvelous acting, should see it before it closes.
Copyright 2007 Byrne Harrison
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