Ward Theatre Company is rather new to the area. I Wish You a Boat, their second production since moving to Durham, opened last weekend and runs through Aug. 26th. It provides a slice of the lives of passengers on the ill-fated final voyage of The Merry Rose and the court case that followed the ship’s sinking. Only 68 of the 190 people on board survived. Most of the survivors were first-class passengers. Most of the deceased were lower-class people, passengers “in steerage.”
Ward Theatre Company’s space in Durham is small (seating 26) but by no means cramped, and their performance is quite intimate. The audience is seated in a single perimeter row on three sides of the performance space. All of the nine actors play multiple roles, creating quite a variety of characters. The program is a “ticket” for the May 3, 1897 voyage of The Merry Rose. Since our ticket is for first-class, we survive the voyage.
Upon entering the theater, we were first struck by the subtle sound of wind and waves, which created the nautical theme. The space is lit by lamps made to resemble lanterns of the time, and it is also furnished properly for the period. The first scene takes place in a courtroom where survivors are testifying before a judge and his assistant, testifying in a case that seeks to establish blame and liability for the tragedy. The testimonies of various passengers and members of the staff are interspersed with silent, surreal, slow-motion scenes involving people who were on the ship when the disaster took place. Thus, we get multiple perspectives of the event.
When the court case is concluded, we are transported back in time to the point just before the crash. We meet several of the steerage passengers. They are variously French, Albanian, Ukrainian, and Polish. There is a certain joy-of-life that we become a part of, a joy that continues up to the tragic moment when it comes to an abrupt halt.
Then we journey further back in time and find ourselves present at various locations in Europe where passengers were preparing to leave their old lives behind and head for their new lives in the New World.
And we finally find ourselves on the dock as these passengers wave their final goodbyes to friends and family. (FYI: This departure was so well done that we found ourselves almost irresistibly inclined to wave back.)
The play examines the subject of immigration and focuses on the plight of immigrants. Furthermore, there is an implied indictment of the unfairness of Western society’s class structure, a scathing indictment, indeed. The play’s scenes variously evoke tears, smiles, and outrage. In addition to the silent scenes mentioned above, there is one prolonged scene in which all dialogue is spoken in foreign languages. And there are scenes in which single characters appear onstage to recite a bit of poetry.
The play’s nonlinear sequence of events and the surreal styling of many of the scenes combine to form an excellent method of conveying this story. The music, written especially for the play, has a haunting, ethereal quality to it, thereby enhancing the mood. (As a side note, we recommend that you take a moment to ponder the outcome of the courtroom sequence and to consider its implications.)
Costuming is excellently done for the period and for the various ethnic groups and classes represented. The space easily converts from courtroom to scenes on board ship and to various European locations. The props and the set dressing are excellent.
Seated very close to the judges’ table, however, the Department of Picky-Picky would like to have seen the judge and his assistant writing with fountain pens or “dip pens” rather than pens that appear to be more modern.
An incidental tribute to the actors’ abilities to create multiple characters: when the cast came out for curtain call, Kurt found himself wondering (for a few moments) when the actors playing the judge and his assistant would be joining them.
Ward Theatre’s acting company includes Brandon Cooke, Ryan Fleming, Michael Steven Jenkins, Phillipa Jensen, Amber Oliver, Kara Phelps, Karin Schmid, Kate Sheffield, and Robbie Wiggins.
Directed by company founder Wendy Ward, I Wish You a Boat is a unique theater experience, expertly combining multiple staging techniques. Ward Theatre Company is a welcome addition to the Triangle theatre scene. They perform at their studio which is located at 4905 Pine Cone Drive, Suite 12, in Durham. It’s easy to find using GPS or any Maps app, and this production is well worth the trip.
SECOND OPINION: July 6th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/embark-on-a-timely-voyage-into-immigration-issues-in-i-wish-you-a-boat/Content?oid=5048547; and July 6th Hillsborough, NC WHUP/Radio 104.7 interview for “Lights Up”: https://whupfm.org/episode/lights-up-7616-permanent-archive/.
Ward Theatre Company presents I WISH YOU A BOAT, written and directed by Wendy Ward at 8 p.m. July 15 and 16, 3 p.m. July 17, 8 p.m. July 22 and 23, 3 p.m. July 24, 8 p.m. July 29 and 30, 3 p.m. July 31, 8 p.m. Aug. 5 and 6, 3 p.m. Aug. 7, 8 p.m. Aug. 12 and 13, 3 p.m. Aug. 14, 8 p.m. Aug. 16-20, 3 p.m. Aug. 21, 8 p.m. Aug. 23-27, and 3 p.m. Aug. 28 at 4905 Pine Cone Dr., Suite 12, Durham, North Carolina 27707.
BOX OFFICE: 917-816-2122, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/i-wish-you-a-boat/.
PRESENTER: http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/, http://wardstudio.com/, https://www.facebook.com/WardTheatreCompany, and https://twitter.com/wardstudio.
NOTE: There will be a Q&A session after each Sunday matinee performance.
Wendy Ward (New York City and Durham, NC playwright, director, and teacher): https://www.facebook.com/WardActingStudio, and https://twitter.com/wardstudio (Twitter page).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.