nytheatre.com review by Reagan Wilson
June 13, 2008
Art House Productions' collaborators—Katherine Damigos, Christine Goodman, Jack Halpin, Richard Kirkwood, and Judy Nunez—bring to Jersey City a salty tale about burlesque beauties at sea—no, that's not it. A grim tale of male poets in drag—no, that can't be it. A crabby tale of an orphaned lesbian who's looking for love—hmm, maybe not. Here's what the show's postcard states:
Val is down on her luck in Crabcake Bay. When she answers an ad promising adventure, a journey unfolds that will take her beyond the borders of imagination. A secret society of women, a busted ham radio, and mythological creatures come to life in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience sits on board the ship!
Still don't know what the show is about? Neither do I and that's why I loved it! If you sat through all ten seasons of Seinfeld then you are comfortable with lives that go nowhere. Fan of The X-Files? Fear not, mythical creatures and demonic possession don't just make guest appearances but are downright recurring characters in this wild ride.
Entréz, s'il-vous plait, and take a seat on a nice office swivel chair. In the center of the room are a collection of such swivel chairs, with purpose. The action takes place all around the audience: ocean waves play on the large video screen to the left; to the front are the stern and a portion of the deck of ship; on the right is the radio room;, and to the rear, a crow's nest. Warning: characters may enter from anywhere. But there's no need to fear: about five minutes into the play, the ship's crew (dressed like Moulin Rouge can-can girls) rope off the audience, thus preventing any overzealous swiveling. It's never explained why the cast wear these risqué gowns (costumer Christine Goodman's keen eye for detail is apparent in McKenzie's work outfit and Margaret's day dress). But wait, this play isn't about luxurious costumes. It's about, um… uh. Well, let's get back to Christine Goodman.
Apparently, she's not just a writer and costumer, she also plays Margaret Mayfair St. James, owner of the vessel and an inspiration to her crew members. From the first moment she steps on stage, you know that this woman is a force to be reckoned with. Goodman steals scene after scene, although Margaret's second-in-command, McKenzie, played by Helene Taylor, gives her a run for her money. Every glance that McKenzie shoots at Margaret or Val is filled with a thousand words, and resentment is the underlying note in so many of her unspoken words.
But wait, this play isn't about Goodman or Taylor. Nor is it about those other loveable sitcom characters: tough-as-nails Billie (played by Janice Ducate); neurotic Hopper (Katherine Damigos); bubbly and well-meaning Evelyn (Jen Ponton); Bob, a poet in drag (Malachy Orozco); the harbormaster (Ron Leir); the dockworker (David Ribyat). So many characters at sea and for the most part they all work well, though while Ducate and Ribyat delight, Orozco is a one-note-Johnny and seems uninvolved with the rest of his castmates. Damigos has mastered her neurotic speech, but it would be nice if the writers and director Jack Halpin had given her something more to do.
Just as we are nearing the end of this nautical adventure, and I think Ponton or maybe Judy Nunez as a sea spirit might steal the show, Margaret reenters, and commands some clouds, and our attention. But again, this play is not about Margaret.
It's about Val (played by Maggie Cino), an orphaned lesbian with a bad leg who has embarked on this adventure to nowhere. Unlike these other comic book characters, Val is not well-drawn. Her story of life before her sea adventure never explains how she got to where she is. She's a girl who looks like trouble, quick-tempered, full of attitude, but we never see the fuel that burns the fire. The lesbian love scene between Val and her heart's desire feels like a cheap trick, complete with a weird orgasm scene and girl-on-girl kissing.
But Sea Story isn't about cliché lesbian love scenes. It's about... well, whatever it's about, Halpin has directed one whale of a tale that is bound to delight even if not simply for the swivel chairs.