Monday, April 26, 2010

Blog Exclusive Review: The Wreck of the Medusa

(Full disclosure: I went to The Plagiarists' Salon last Monday. They're a very friendly group, and I like them. But rest assured, this is an honest review.)

Nobody can ever accuse The Plagiarists of lacking ambition. The Wreck of the Medusa, their new play, written by Gregory Peters (though Ian Miller is credited as co-creator) and directed by Jack Tamburri, explores the worst naval disaster of the 19th Century from a dizzying variety of perspectives and styles. There are scenes from before the journey, leading up to the wreck, and the years after, pieces of an overblown melodrama based on the disaster, and a look at the creation of Theodore Gericault's famous painting about the disaster, and scenes are played as realism, parody, direct address, and even horror. Nearly everything onstage is interesting, and some is really fantastic, but the diffuse focus makes the play seems longer than its two hours and 20 minutes. It's hard to follow something that goes so many directions at once.

The story of the wreck itself is a grisly one--the Medusa was the head of a convoy going towards Senegal (a colony just being returned to French control in 1816) which took an unsafe course to save time, and was guided even worse by a charlatan (Steven Wilson) who convinced the incompetent captain (Andrew Marchetti) he was an expert in navigation. The ship struck a sandbar, and 150 of the 600 sailors and passengers were left on an overcrowded raft with minimal provisions. After insufficient efforts to tow the raft it was abandoned. When accidentally rescued 13 days later, only 15 survived, who had resorted to cannibalism to survive. Afterwards, the French government attempted to cover up the criminal negligence that led to the disaster and discredit those who told the truth, but Alexandre CorrĂ©ard (Greg Hess) and Henri  de Sevigny (Kevin V. Smith) published an account of the shipwreck which became a huge success.

No scenes take place on the raft, and this is wise--what stage depiction could live up to the actual horrors, or the ones we could imagine? But aside from that, the play seems determined to tell us everything about the wreck. It's like spending an evening with someone who recently became obsessed with the topic and read a bunch of books on it--everything said is fascinating, but the scattered nature makes it a little tough to follow.

But so much of it is really worth watching. The end of the first act, leading up to the wreck and the abandonment of the raft is riveting (I was reminded of the incompetence, before and after the storm, that made Hurricane Katrina such a disaster), and it is full of scenes and moments that are horrifying or beautiful. As a collection of scenes, performances, and ideas, it provides a lot of food for thought and feeling. The acting is on a consistently high level, with Hess, Smith, Griffin Sharps, and Wilson particularly strong. And the design is brilliant--William Anderson again makes a stunning set in a small space (full disclosure: he did the same for Here Where It's Safe at Stage Left), Anna Glowacki's costumes blend the period-accurate and the expressionistic, and Christopher Kriz's sound design is so evocative as to be almost physical, especially during the shipwreck.

For those of us hungry for new plays with real scope and ambition, The Wreck of the Medusa is very encouraging. If the creators got a little too excited by the possibilities and let the show get away from them, who can blame them?

The Wreck of the Medusa runs Fridays-Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 3 PM at Angel Island, 735 W Sheridan Road, through May 9th. Tickets, $15-20, at


Mr. K said...

Damn, I better get my own shipwreck play ready about how an incompetent captain was led astray by a sociopath, and how, when the survivors were stranded on barely habitable sandbars, they quickly mutinied.

And yes, that is also based on fact and a completely different incident.

Time to ride the zeitgeist!

Jack said...

Zev, thanks for the review.

I'm not going to attempt to defend any aspect of the show while it's still running.

However, the thing I will say is that the broad scale that you identify as both a positive and negative element of THE WRECK OF THE MEDUSA is definitely what we were going for, and I am proud of both the variety of events onstage and the frustratingly diffuse focus. The sense of dissatisfaction you may have felt at the incompleteness of any given story or the attempt to tell too many stories is an essential part of the experience of THE WRECK OF THE MEDUSA. Correard's final monologue explains, I hope, why. The goal was always to balance that frustration with events so compelling that their ultimate failure to cohere into an indelible Point became the Point itself.

Is this a perversely difficult and ultimately self-defeating intention for an evening of theater? Perhaps. No one will ever accuse the Plagiarists of taking it easy.

Look at that! Despite my intentions I just defended a play in the comments section of a review. Bad form, me!

Thanks for coming to the show. I look forward to continuing this conversation in more depth after May 9.

Jack Tamburri

Zev Valancy said...

Jack--Thanks for breaking your own code to respond.

I think the important question to ask is: when does a productive frustration slide into just checking out? There isn't one answer to this--and I think this is particularly a show where responses vary quite a bit. For me, that happened a few times during the show, particularly early in the first act, when it was hard to tell what was going on, and later in the second, when the show seemed to be ending multiple times.

But as I said, I think that point of checking out is different for many people. There's a lot to be said for pushing that limit. Perverse is one of those things, but so is fascinating.