Review: ‘Whale’s Wake’ at Ragged Wing Ensemble (****)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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

San Francisco theatre goers are fortunate in having many choices: we can see touring Broadway shows at traditional houses, mainstream productions by distinguished regional theatres, home grown experts in musical comedy, and — PRAISE DIONYSUS!— experimental work by a number of dedicated “art theatres” who, being out of the mainstream, have the gift of time and freedom to push boundaries and explore different ways of making theatre than can typically be found in the more mainstream houses and companies.

Oakland’s Ragged Wing Ensemble is among the best of the “art theatre” category, and “Whale’s Wake” represents some of their best work.

Ragged Wing does everything as an ensemble, working for many months to develop pieces together as a group (sometimes, as with “Whale’s Wake,” under the leadership of a playwright), incorporating physical theatre (such as circus skills, mime, acrobatics, dance, etc.) and puppetry, and often including meta-commentary on the themes of the script in the form of fantasy or surreal sequences. “Whale’s Wake” is a shining example of the distinctive Ragged Wing style.

This season, Ragged Wing Ensemble has chosen to explore the theme of “kin.” In Whale’s Wake, a family must deal with the sudden death of their patriarch, a whale of a man, big in size and spirit. In the first act, Sass’s well-constructed script follows a typical formula for this sort of play, where a family gathers after a death: one sibling has remained at the rural family home, another visits from a faraway city, a third struggles through a love/hate relationship with her sister. This fairly typical material is handled well, with a few unusual twists. For example, the dead father was a hoarder and an auctioneer, who ran his business effectively but without much organization. In short: he’s left a mess in which everything is up for grabs to the highest bidder — not just his physical legacy, but his emotional one as well. The father’s presence looms over the action like. .. well . . . like a beached whale. And then, outside, on the sandy beach where the house sits along a shifting coastline, there IS a beached well. A huge, smelly, disgusting, beautiful, infuriating, interrupting beast. Talk about your objective correlative!

The siblings learn the rural community has no resources to handle this crisis. But, absent some action, the whale will soon explode from the gasses building up in the corpse. Really. A local contractor informs them that, if they want to avoid a horrifying disaster, they must act as his crew and cut up the whale.

In the second act, the careful, formulaic family drama explodes into something else as the hapless family dons slick yellow overalls and, armed with various cutting tools, proceed to metaphorically hack up the massive heap of bloody blubber that is Dad and lover. They literally cut and claw their way into the belly of the beast.

This play is all at once realistic and absurd, comic and tragic, highly original and very entertaining. The large ensemble performs with the magical coordination of a huge sea mammal swimming in the ocean. The puppetry (yes, there IS a physical representation of a whale) is wonderful and well incorporated into the action of the play. All of the design elements are a little bit off kilter, but peculiarly effective — a Ragged Wing trademark.

The result is something unique, and well worth seeing.

“Whale’s Wake” continues at The Flight Deck in Oakland, through May 7, 2016. For further information, click here.

IF YOU ENJOY READING THEATRESTORM, PLEASE CLICK HERE TO EXPRESS YOUR APPRECIATION.

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“Whale’s Wake” by Amy Sass, produced by Ragged Wing Ensemble. Director: Amy Sass. Scenic Designer: Erik LaDue. Lighting Designer: Daniel Weiermann. Sound Designers: Laura Inserra & Hussein Sami. Costume Designer: Abra Berman. Properties Designer: Florence McCafferty. Technical Director: Dashiell Menard. 

Cast:

Mona: Sharon Huff. Shel: Keith C. Davis. Dee: Mikka Bonel. Vi: Anne Darragh. Emma: Anya Kazimierska. Yellow Overalls: David Cramer. Voices of The Girls: Anya Kazimierska, Amy Sass, Mikka Bonel.

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