Review: World Premiere of ‘pen/man/ship’ at Magic Theatre (****)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(pen/man/ship plays at Magic Theatre from May 28 through June 15, 2014.)

Christina Anderson’s pen/man/ship is a remarkably ambitious play that aims for greatness and, in part, succeeds.

Few settings  in American literature are as evocative as a ship at sea. From Melville’s Moby Dick to Steinbeck’s Lifeboat, the ship as a microcosm of society is one of our great literary metaphors. Much of this metaphorical power comes from our origins as a sea-based economy (whaling was one of the the great economic drivers of the colonies) and our history of immigration by sea.

In the case of Black Americans, the vast majority of whom have ancestors who were brought to America in chains by sea voyage from the African Slave Coast, the metaphorical force of the image of a ship at sea is exponentially increased.

It is the Fall of 1896, and the Supreme Court has just upheld the Jim Crow laws of the South as constitutional. The window of opportunity for Blacks that occurred in the period of Reconstruction immediately following the Civil War has slammed shut.

Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson) and Ruby (Tangela Large) in the world premiere of Christina Anderson's Pen/Man/Ship at Magic Theatre. Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley
Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson) and Ruby (Tangela Large) in the world premiere of Christina Anderson’s pen/man/ship at Magic Theatre. Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley

On a ship in the mid-Atlantic, Charles Boyd, a proud Black man, a professional surveyor, is traveling on a secret project to the new country of  Liberia, colonized by American Blacks returning to Africa to make a new beginning.

Charles is accompanied by his devoted son, Jacob, and, unexpectedly, a woman (Ruby) with whom Jacob has formed a bond. A fourth character, a sympathetic crew member and Charles’s confidante (Cecil), is the only other character we see on stage. Offstage are a crew of colored soldiers and a colored captain (“colored” is the term used in the play), presumably uneducated, working class men for whom Charles displays an open contempt.

Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson) observes the Sabbath with his father Charles (Adrian Roberts). Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley.

In the close quarters of a ship at sea, the four main characters engage in discussions of significance. The girl, Ruby, dreams of freedom in Liberia. Jacob struggles to free himself from his father’s tight control. Charles lives in denial of his alcoholism, and fosters a fierce determination to be what he sees as a different, superior sort of Black man. Cecil watches and listens, a mysterious, almost mythological figure, accompanying the action with his ever present accordion and moving freely between Charles and the mysterious unseen crew.

When the passionate Ruby discovers (or suspects) the disturbing purpose of Charles’s voyage to Liberia, she uses her histrionic gifts to incite and support mutiny among the crew. Ultimately, Charles finds himself in a direct encounter with a young crew member who is killed.

By this time the ship has become a microcosmic maelstrom of societal conflict: rich and poor, male and female, white and black, young and old, free and slave—and in a flurry of conflict the play moves to its conclusion.

pen/man/ship is never dull, in spite of complex themes, intellectual heft, and limited action. Much of the sustained interest can be credited to the design team. The ship setting by Angrette McCloskey is realistic, and, lit in fits and starts by Ray Oppenheimer, seems to actually rock in the water. Sara Huddleston’s sound design persuasively evokes the sea.

Adrian Roberts, as Charles, and Eddie Ray Jackson as his son Jacob, are excellent. Their relationship is full of complexity and ambivalence. These two actors recently performed together in an excellent production of August Wilson’s Fences at Marin Theatre Company, and they have clearly made use of this opportunity to develop an exceptional rapport. Tyee Tilghman, playing Cecil, also appeared in Fences. These three actors work together with an exceptional sense of ensemble.

The accordian-playing Cecil (Tyee Tilghman). Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley
The accordian-playing Cecil (Tyee Tilghman). Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley

The newcomer is Tangela Large as Ruby, making her Magic Theatre (and, I believe, Bay Area) debut. Ms. Large is an actress of exceptional gifts. Possessing a wonderfully expressive face and a supple vocal instrument, this beautiful actress is able to run through a wide range of emotions with the quick sensitivity of a compass needle. Whatever happens, however the circumstances shift, her emotional life points invariably to true north, never wavering. She delivers the kind of moment-to-moment work that every actor strives for, and few achieve with this level of consistency.

I opened this review with the observation that pen/man/ship is a remarkably ambitious play. It strives to be great art, something much more than merely well made, much more than an evening’s entertainment. Does it succeed? Not entirely.

The deep structure of Ms. Anderson’s play, the richness of symbol, the complexity of ideas are all impressive. But the actual language spoken falls short. Where the circumstances and vitality of the situation demand poetry, Ms. Anderson too often delivers prose. In particular, the circumstances of Charles’s final monologue cry out for a magnificence that the speech as written fails to deliver. One hopes for something as transcendent as Linda’s closing lines from Arthur Miller’s Great American Tragedy Death Of A Salesman beginning with “Nobody dast blame this man….”.  Ms. Anderson does not deliver at that level.

But I believe she will. As it stands, pen/man/ship is a remarkable play given a remarkable production by the Magic. With further developoment and future productions, it may well grow into something much more.

For further information, click here.

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pen/man/ship, a world premiere by Christina Anderson, produced by Magic Theatre. Director: Ryan Guzzo Purcell. Set Design: Angrette McCloskey. Costume Design: Antonia Gunnarson. Lighting Design: Ray Oppenheimer. Sound Design: Sara Huddleston. 

Jacob: Eddie Ray Jackson. Ruby: Tangela Large. Charles: Adrian Roberts. Cecil: Tyee Tilghman.

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