Theatre Review: The Whaleship Essex

By Seth Lowery, Theatre Critic

Shattered Globe Theatre recently premiered a new play by Joe Forbich, “The Whaleship Essex.” The play is derived from the real events that led to and followed the demise of the whaler of the same name. A sperm whale in the south Pacific attacked the Essex, which inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby Dick” in 1820 while on its mission from Nantucket, Mass.

The beginning of the show introduces a married couple looking for a place to stay during their visit to Nantucket. Through a conversation with a man who offers them lodging, it is revealed that the husband, an author looking for inspiration, is visiting Nantucket on the 30th anniversary of the last voyage of The Whaleship Essex, a ship dedicated to hunting whales for the valuable oil made from their blubber. The innkeeper offers to tell his own story of the demise of the Essex.

As the innkeeper narrates, the characters set the scene aboard the ship. It is quickly learned that the crew is a combination of young and experienced men.

The ship’s crew suffers many tensions during this voyage. There is a power struggle between the captain and first mate, challenging leadership models. The young, new crewmembers have an immense thirst to prove themselves, challenging how people view age. There are black men aboard the ship, amidst a culture that condones slavery, challenging ideas of race and culture.

Through the struggle of the crew, personal and moral boundaries are drawn and crossed by circumstance. Questions are raised about human nature and to what lengths people will go for achievement.

This play offers a realistic glimpse into the crude life of 19th century sailors. The audience may not feel personal attachment to each of the characters, but Forbich’s brilliant use of narration and the creative blocking of Lou Contey enables each audience member to feel like a part of the story.

The production offers strong ensemble acting and fairly consistent dialects from a difficult time period. Much can be said for the acting prowess of Angie Shriner, as a cabin boy, and Joseph Wiens, as First Mate Owen Chase, who both shone in their roles in the show. Although Shriner displayed acting prowess, I believe the role would be more suited for an actress with a higher speaking voice, sounding more like a boy with an unchanged voice.

This play draws a strong correlation between the whaling industry of the 1800s and the petroleum industry of today. In pursuit of wealth and prosperity, wars are waged, people are killed, and lives are ruined. In the case of the Essex, sailors hunted prey that eventually became their undoing. They gleaned wealth from nature and nature fought back. We are gleaning wealth from the Earth, so this story should be enough to give us pause. How long will we take from the Earth before the Earth fights back?

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