Wake of the Essex
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
July 17, 2006
In 1820, the aftermath of a whale attack on the whaling ship Essex was the headline disaster event of its day. 30 years later, the event inspired Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby Dick. Now, the catastrophe is the subject of Wake of the Essex, a solo play written and directed by Lou Rodgers, and performed by actor Robert Manzari. The production engages more as a lively history lesson than a visceral theatrical experience.
Played with energetic bluster by Manzari, George Pollard, former captain of the Essex, is now retired on his native Nantucket, staring at the sea and sensing an "Angel of Death" constantly on his shoulder. Visited by an unnamed writer curious about his story, Pollard embarks on his "journey into hell." He describes the whale attack that destroyed his ship, the months drifting on small boats, the decision to eat the bodies of the dead crew, and ultimately, the need to sacrifice a living man to feed the remaining survivors. As he tells his story, Pollard sometimes re-experiences the memories that haunt him.
Rodgers, a descendent of the real Pollard, is intrigued by the spiritual themes of the ordeal. At first, Pollard has faith that "God will guide us home." But as the food and men dwindle, the requirements of survival become unbearably primal. In the play's emotional climax, Pollard connects his untenable dilemma to Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac—without a last-minute intervention from above. Finally, he wonders "did I desert God, or did God abandon me?"
The account moves forward chronologically, without giving time for Pollard to observe or reflect. We hardly see Pollard undergo the personal transformation he describes. Instead, he is portrayed as an archetype, and Manzari embodies the role with a performance painted in very broad strokes. With a rich vocal instrument, lively (perhaps too youthful) gestures, and a booming presence, he holds our attention throughout the 45-minute play. But under Rodgers's direction, he rarely reveals vulnerability or shows the survivor's guilt described by the text. The final impression is of a salty coot whose pleasure in performing overpowers his crisis of conscience, which is supposed to be the long-term wake of the disaster.
Lighting shifts (no designers credited) help show when Pollard drifts out of the present, into his memories. These are the play's most striking moments—especially the final memory where Pollard confronts his spiritual despair. Here, script, actor, and stage composition come together to express Pollard's inner torment. More such moments, with the emphasis on showing rather than narrating, would make this journey to hell a more challenging, but also more satisfying, voyage to undertake.
The piece is proceeded by Hair of the Dog, a curtain raiser devised by the same team, with Manzari (without his elaborate Pollard makeup), unctuously relaying country-boy anecdotes while accompanied by blues musician Bobby Lynn, followed by a long set of Lynn's songs. With no thematic or structural connection to the main event, it comes across as an awkward afterthought.