Review of pen/man/ship

by Lynn on December 18, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streamed until Jan. 4, 2021

Written by Christina Anderson

Directed by Lucie Tiberghien

Set by Lina Younes

Costumes by Ari Fulton

Cast: Crystal Lucas

Kevin Mambo

Jared McNeill

Postell Pringle

Another terrific production from Molière in the Park briming with ideas and lots to think about.

The Story.  pen/man/ship by Christina Anderson is a parable of a maritime story involving violence, racism, religious oppression and rebellion. One might think of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner but Christina Anderson has fashioned a play that is all her own.

“It’s 1896 and Charles Boyd and his son Jacob board a ship in America heading for Liberia, Africa on a mysterious mission. Also with them is Ruby Heard an opinionated young woman who is a friend of Jacob.

On the open sea, an unexpected detour resurrects family secrets and reveals true intentions, fundamentally changing the course of their journey and their lives forever.”

We soon see that Charles Boyd is a bible thumping bully to his son and the men of the crew. He is not happy that Ruby, a woman, is on the voyage. Charles has hired the crew and the captain and says that “I am the ideal man for this journey.” He is going to survey land in Liberia. We are told the dastardly reason in the play. Charles has contempt for everybody, including the crew and keeps away from them as much as possible, except for one crew-member named Cecil. Cecil played the ‘squeeze-box” and amused Charles. Most of the time Charles spends his time writing in his journal, drinking a bottle of gin and getting more and more paranoid.

Ruby is leaving America because she was treated badly as a Black woman. She has a stunning line that references Jim Crow and “peculiar fruit that hangs in our trees.” A line that echoes Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” and leaves you breathless. The crew and the captain are Black and so are Charles and Jacob.

Playwright Christina Anderson is writing about racism from a white point of view in the case of Ruby. But mainly she’s writing about the racism within the race when you listen to the arrogance of Charles towards people he feels are beneath him—such as Ruby, the crew and his own son. I found that fascinating. 

The Production.  The title is a wonderful play on words because the words ‘pen’ ‘man’ and ‘ship’ are written as if ‘penmanship’ is broken up into syllable. And once you hear the story of the play the three words: pen, man, ship give a clever sketch of what the play is about.

Initially the production it looks like a zoom call. Each actor has his/her own square/location  from where they are talking. But director Lucie Tiberghien is creative. The cast does interact. One might look sideways as if looking at a person to their left or right. The character who is looked at returns the gaze. Objects are passed from one character’s square to another who reaches out to receive it.

In one scene the Ruby (Crystal Lucas) is talking to Jacob (Jared McNeill). She is looking out to us but behind her, hanging on a wall to her right is a small mirror and reflected in it is Jacob’s face as if he is in the room with her talking to her with his back to us. It’s one of many creative touches that raises the quality of this digital production above many others.

Sometimes the placement of a square with a person talking changes the dynamic. For example at times the square with Ruby is between that of Jacob and his father, Charles (Kevin Mambo), with Ruby being a bit above them both, showing a superiority she actually has on that ship. The men trust her and not Charles Boyd. She talks to them with interest.  Crystal Lucas, as Ruby has a calm grace about her. She is an intelligent woman who is not intimidated by Charles Boyd. She’s delt with many overbearing, bullying men like Charles and she is armed with the smarts and wit to outsmart him. Charles does not interact with them because he holds them in contempt. Kevin Mambo as Charles seems to have a permanent sneer on his face. Mr. Mambo is ever mindful of that arrogant line that Charles feels he is the only man who could have planned the voyage. I have news—Ruby could have done it in a snap, with delicacy. Mr. Mambo illuminates Charles’ demons who haunt him at every turn.  He’s impassioned, paranoid, imperious, and volatile. He is overbearing with his son. He must have the last and first word. You get a sense of the kind of marriage he had regardless of the rosy picture he tries to paint. As Jacob, Jaret McNeill tries to stand up to his father when he isn’t trying to please him. Jacob is a man trying to stand on his own two feet and be confident. Perhaps he can get that from Ruby. He won’t get it from his father. Finally, Postell Pringle as Cecil, is an easy going man but with a sense of who he is. He’s rather puzzled about what Charles sees in him as good company.  

Lina Younes has designed a smart set. There is a model of a four masted schooner and it looks like it’s rolling on something resembling blue water with curled waves that move the ship along. In fact the waves are made of clay shapes that are overlayed and filmed again and again to look like waves with the schooner on the waves. Ari Fulton’s costumes are of the time of 1896—rich material, form-fitting for Jacob, Ruby and Charles, and tatters for Cecil. To suggest the whole crew we see silhouette figures on the ship’s deck. Terrific production.  

Comment.  This is Molière In the Park’s first contemporary play. I think it’s a beauty.  I’ve only discovered this wonderful company on line. What a powerhouse organization. They usually do productions of Molière’s plays.Because they believe in serving the multi-ethnic, diverse people of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park they do their production in open spaces (parks for example), and they offer them for free. In this time of Covid, the company explores the many opportunities to use technology to bring theatre to a wider digital audience.  And they have adapted beautifully to this pandemic world.

pen/man/ship is a beautifully written play about racism in unusual places, greed, escape, and freedom. I’ll be looking out for more work from Christina Anderson and this wonderful company.

pen/man/ship is available on the Molière in the Park YouTube channel until Jan. 4, 2021:

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