REVIEW: The Wreck of the Medusa (The Plagiarists)

Cannibal Fare for Cannibal Times

 
The Plagiarists present:
 
The Wreck of the Medusa
 
created by Ian Miller and Gregory Peters
directed by
Jack Tamburrie
at
Angel Island Theatre, 731 W. Sheridan (map)
through May 9th | tickets: $15-$20 | more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There are plays that you admire; since their productions are also admirable, you recommend them. There are plays that you carry with you long after you leave the theater; these you recommend highly. Then, there are plays that you wish would Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0534 spread like wildfire around the world and this play is one of them. The Wreck of the Medusa, created by Ian Miller and Gregory Peters, is now enjoying its world-premiere at Angel Island Theatre (home of Mary-Arrchie Theatre). The Plagiarists, who produce only original works, have been workshopping the play for at least two years, unveiling its fledgling prototype in the DCA Incubator Series in January 2009.

Such meticulous care in development was more than worth the effort. Based on the worst maritime disaster of the 19th-century, The Wreck of the Medusa relies upon multiple narratives, medias and styles to relay the horror of the event and its attempted cover-up by the French government. But the play also challenges the notion of ever really knowing what its survivors went through, especially through the vehicle of art. It’s a decidedly self-conscious play that never becomes precious about its ability to tell the truth. Rather, it generates layer upon layer of ambiguous meaning, made manifest through the disparities that crop up in narrative and perception.

In 1816, the French Naval Minister Dubouchage (Marsha Harman), under the Bourbon monarch Louis XVIII (Kasia Januszewski), appointed Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys (Andrew Marchetti) as captain of the frigate Medusa. His mission, with three other ships, was to deliver Colonel Julien-Desire Schmaltz (Christopher Marcum) as the new governor of Senegal in a peaceful handover of the colony from the British to the French. The crown chose Chaumareys based on his pedigree and Royalist loyalties—quite understandable, since Napoleon’s 100 days had embroiled France the summer before. However, they completely overlooked Chaumareys’ extreme lack of naval experience and personal knack for gross incompetence.

What was supposed to be a standard voyage turned into mind-numbing disaster. On July 2, the Medusa ran aground off the coast of Senegal. 150 passengers were abandoned on a cobbled-together raft while the captain, the governor and high-ranking officers made it to shore in two days in lifeboats. Stranded without sails, navigational equipment, or decent provisions, the passengers quickly turned on each other, to the point of murder and cannibalism. After 12 days at sea, only 15 survived from the original 150 and 5 of those died soon after rescue by the Argus, a companion ship they’d lost sight of before the wreck.

Plagiarists_Wreck Promos_02272010_0055_fade[1] The disaster resulted in absolute scandal for the newly established Bourbon monarchy. Especially when, against all government efforts to discredit them, two survivors, ship’s surgeon J.B. Henry de Sevigny (Kevin V. Smith) and geographical engineer Alexander Correard (Greg Hess) collaborated on a tell-all book about the shipwreck that spread like wildfire across Europe.

Peters and Miller’s genius employs many different points of view leading up to the abandonment of the passengers on the raft, then intricately explores the wreck’s political and cultural aftermath once its survivors have been rescued.  But the horror of the raft itself they leave to the dark pit of the imagination. Indeed, all narratives surrounding those fatal twelve days, as well as all attempts by artists to graphically depict it, seem more like the human mind struggling to comprehend unimaginably dangerous depths within the human psyche.

But for ignorant Americans, like myself, who know nothing about the Bourbon Restoration, this is fine storytelling theater–the narratives themselves contain full acknowledgement of their frailties and incompleteness. Furthermore, the absurdity of the storytelling becomes heightened by the exuberantly melodramatic rendition of the wreck that bookend the play’s straightforward sections. Here, the dark, macabre tale of The Wreck of the Medusa receives some Monty Python treatment. I have no idea whether Peters and Miller are quoting directly from W. T. Moncrieff’s The Fatal Raft, but these scenes certainly do read like a 19th-century melodrama “based on true events!” While the cast is brilliantly even and superlative in their multiple roles, Steve Wilson’s versatility stands out both as Jack Gallant, the plucky British sailor with the ridiculously pregnant pause, and as the disturbingly creepy Richefort, a stranger to whom Captain de Chaumareys inexplicably gives over command of the ship.

Other roles also stand out. Christopher Marcum’s insidiously evil Governor Schmaltz looks like the Bourbon version of the Bush/Cheney administration. His aide Griffon Du Bellay (Griffin Sharps) creates with him the perfect match made in hell. Kevin Smith so convincingly portrays the psychology of the ship’s doctor, one fears for the actor’s own sanity. Sevigny’s ratiocinated dissection of events and their effects on the minds of the survivors, including his own, cannot spare him the hallucinatory horrors of PTSD. Marsha Harmon conveys a kind of androgynous polish in her roles as Dubouchage and as the Herald for the Lord of the Tropic (Kasia Januszewski). Through it all, even on trial, Marchetti’s Chaumareys remains perfectly proper, slightly aloof, and totally clueless.

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Greg Hess’s engineer, Correard, comes across as the play’s one regular guy. But even his ambiguities over our capacity to relay what really happened get teased out through his partnership with Theodore Gericault (James Dunn), the artist willing go to extremes to paint the truth about the raft. Gericault’s work hangs in the Louvre, now regarded as a seminal work for the Romantic Movement in painting. Several characters explore its meaning during the play. Their responses are generally ours, to any catastrophic event we get to see up close and in person.

Surely, the story of the wreck of the Medusa isn’t worse than the economic and war-as-foreign-policy wrecks into which we have so blithely and incompetently sailed. This Plagiarists production reflects our own country’s monstrous wreck—told in miniature, told in fragments, told in horror, told in farce. Perfect for a broken world, perfect for a world we have pushed to the breaking point.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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