Zoom-age virtual theater and Molière in the Park each take a leap forward with pen/man/ship, a vivid online production of a play by Christina Anderson. MIP’s first offering of a contemporary American play combines illusion, animation and technology into a frothing drama of ideas and convictions.
Beginning in the early 19th century and for many decades thereafter, the American Colonization Society (ACS) sponsored the emigration of small numbers of free Blacks to Africa, specifically Liberia. The white people behind the effort were not, for the most part, nobly motivated. This is the backdrop for the action, which takes place on a ship manned by an all-Black crew hired by Charles Boyd (Kevin Mambo), a middle-aged, alcoholic Black preacher. But his motives for this particular 1896 transatlantic journey remain, for some time, a mystery.
In Charles, Anderson has created an enigma, a genuinely religious man willing to sacrifice principle for survival. Having never gotten over the death of his wife, he has placed his hopes in his son Jacob (Jared McNeill), with whom he has regular prayer and Bible study sessions, secure in his cabin insulated from the rowdy young crew. But there’s a wild card on board: Ruby Heard (Crystal Lucas-Perry), a queenly young woman fed up with the violence and indignities heaped upon African Americans in the post-Reconstruction period. Robbed of her ACS funding, she has accepted the invitation of an infatuated Jacob to come along for the ride.
Ruby means to settle in her land of the free, but no one knows Charles’ true purpose; the crew cares only that he is paying a decent wage. Ruby is the classic disruptive force, challenging Charles’s religious convictions with godlessness and his philosophical hold over Jacob with her charismatic radicalism. When the sea spray hits the fan, she becomes much more than a mere passenger.
Rounding out the cast of four is Cecil (Postell Pringle), a scruffy but ambitious and intellectual-minded crewman who entertains the company with his accordion and develops an unlikely bond with Charles that figures importantly in the painful showdown that develops.
It all plays out amid a production that advances lockdown theater in several ways. While each performer is physically alone, the creative team produces an effective illusion of space, interaction, and setting by means of backdrops, long shots in the form of cutout animations, realistic lighting effects, clever overlays, and technology that eliminates or accounts for latency and other awkward artifacts of separateness. Smart, adaptive direction by Lucie Tiberghien knits it all together into a rousing and thought-provoking two-hour shanty.
The format forces one to think differently about actors’ work than one does in a physical theater. This is live theater in the sense that it’s a single contiguous performance, with the cast interacting in real time. In another way it’s like film and TV, in that scenarios are framed and created using video technology instead of physical space. In still another, it’s like radio drama, in that the actors must play to a camera and microphone rather than to one another physically. I credit all actors who can adapt to this medium, especially since no one had anticipated it would be needed.
This cast is solid all around. Though she has perhaps the least realistic role, Lucas-Perry gives us a steely, believable Ruby. McNeill convincingly develops from meek and placid to resolute and passionate. Pringle’s Cecil is an appealing underdog, a rough-edged workingman with the soul of a poet. And Mambo’s fiery performance as Charles fuses all the elements – the clash of ideas, the mourning and desperation, the innovative production – into a work of real substance.
pen/man/ship is available to view until January 4. “Admission” is free, but you’re encouraged to support Molière in the Park so they can continue producing groundbreaking work during the pandemic and resume live performances in Prospect Park when conditions allow.