Volume 19 | Issue 23 | October 20- 26, 2006

A doomed expedition that sails on stage

Written by Dan O’Brien
Directed by Randy Baruh
Through Sunday, November 12
Soho Playhouse
15 Vandam Street

By Tonia Steed

The lights come up, washing the blank curtain in a cold and unforgiving brightness. At center stands a round, fleshy man in an ill-fitting tuxedo, hair corkscrewing into a halo, red clown nose attached to his face by fraying elastic, a huge prosthetic ass strapped behind him: Bane Barrington.

“The date was April trios, 1899,” he intones. “With no experience worth mentioning, save a bout with typhoid during the Spanish-American War; no proof to substantiate my plan, save what rumors I’d fished from the mouths of drunken whalers; and no real capital for the venture — save loads and loads of recently inherited cash: I had a boat built and christened it The Carcass . . .

I bade goodbye to my friends and family; to my fiancé, Eliza Kane . . . And with my trusted friend Israel by my side, a ragtag band of hardened seamen under me, including my fiance’s own uncle, one “Elijah” Kane as ship’s chaplain . . .we set sail for the North Pole, with nothing but the highest of hopes!” And so it begins.

With “Voyage of the Carcass,” playwright Dan O’Brien has crafted an enormously clever farce. Certainly the tale of an arctic expedition — led by a self-important buffoon (played with scene-chewing glee by Tony-winner Dan Fogler) and attended by a mute idiot savant (Noah Bean) and a ship’s chaplain in drag (Kelly Hutchinson) — qualifies as farce. True to sitcom form, the three find themselves snowed in, starving, and stuck. Out of this fertile situation comes at once articulate and blissfully absurd dialogue, and some of the most perfectly timed stage business I’ve seen in years. Director Randy Baruh has choreographed the three’s numerous tussles as one part pro wrestling, one part Kung Fu, and one part Keystone Kops, and the results are a beautiful thing to watch.

But farce as a form tends to be limited — it’s stripped-down, superficial entertainment. So O’Brien opts to toy with its conventions, fleshing out the characters and introducing us to new layers of story, each playing with the other. About twenty minutes in, the house lights come up and the “actor” playing Bane says, “Okay, that’s ten.” “Voyage of the Carcass” is a play within a play, and at this point we’re introduced to the next layer, the story of the actors playing the Carcass characters. Expedition leader Bane is played by Bill, a struggling and disenchanted actor. Elijah, the chaplain, is played by Bill’s wife, Helen, a former actress and disenchanted ad executive. Israel is played by Dan, a writer and old college buddy who has agreed to create a play, “Voyage of the Carcass,” out of their rehearsal sessions. Dan’s disenchanted with Bill and Helen.

O’Brien’s nimble dialogue quickly establishes the doomed polar expedition as stand-in for the “actors’” journey, to great effect. Almost as soon as we meet the failed actor Bill, heading kicking and screaming towards a “real” job, we recognize the model for the self-important Bane. (“It was an amateur’s fantasy,” Bane says of his journey.) Bill’s expletive-riddled screed against theater, theatergoers and theater practitioners later in the play is the perfect counterpoint to Bane’s highly theatrical speeches.

Fogler as Bane/Bill is a seething, blustering wonder. Hutchinson as Elijah/Helen and Bean as Israel/Dan handle their multiple characters deftly and with unusual sensitivity, given the farcical mode. But the star of this production is the script itself. O’Brien builds self-referential layer (“Voyage of the Carcass”) upon self-referential layer (a play about the making of the “Voyage of the Carcass”), upon self-referential layer (a play about making the play about making the “Voyage of the Carcass.”) He populates his play with actors talking about acting and writers talking about writing. And he pulls this all together by never straying too far from the farce at the play’s core: actions are broad and metaphors are deliberately and hilariously heavy-handed. (Why else would a big ass wear a big ass?) “Voyage of the Carcass” becomes, finally, a delightful piece of theater and a delightful commentary on theater all at once. “Everything’s theatrical,” Bill announces. “Life is theatrical!”

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