For all that’s been said about the appeal of the heroic epic, one of the genre’s least appreciated aspects is that its protagonists are malleable. Joseph Campbell’s infinitely referenced literary analysis, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, is so quotable because its narrative roadmap is so familiar: reluctant protagonist experiences a call to action after a brush in with the fantastic, is faced with a task that challenges his strength or intellect, and then leaves the situation with some reward he can bestow upon others. The heroic epic is objectively satisfying structurally, and allows for practically any kind of protagonist or tone; it’s a story made as easily into comedy as drama.
Enter Steel City Shakespeare’s production of The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, which I caught this past Sunday. The show began at 4 pm, and was located at the Fineview Overlook at the corner of Catoma and Lanark, which features a gorgeous overlook of downtown Pittsburgh. The locale is warm and neighborly, a perfect fit for a creative team that is nothing if not friendly. It is not the dangerous landscape painted in the original text, One Thousand And One Nights, but in this production you’d never know it.
Like Steel City Shakespeare other productions, Sinbad is an all-ages theatric retelling of a literary classic that fills the gaps left by its modest budget with homemade whimsy. The actors read passages as they act, emulating everything from traumatic shipwrecks to fatal acts of violence in the midst of the fable’s well-worn prose. When some kind of monster or figure of myth enters the story, the crew uses homemade puppets, elaborate costumes, household tools and other familiar trappings to get the point across.
The Seven Voyages of Sinbad has us follow the elderly Sinbad (Tracy D. Turner), a man of enormous wealth who has lived the most insane life humanly imaginable. We get to know about his various adventures as the show switches to the perspective of the young Sinbad (Isaiah Christian): the time he accidentally was granted kinghood over an island full of satanic demons; the time he stumbled onto a society in which all spouses are buried alive with their deceased loved ones; the time he crash landed onto an island where everyone was nude and the only source of food reduced men to madness. When a younger, poorer man (Sebastian Midence) also named Sinbad visits his castle, our protagonist can’t resist the opportunity to grant the man some of his wealth in exchange for his listening to each of his seven voyages.
Steel City Shakespeare’s earnest, ‘anything goes!’ approach to storytelling gives the production a Wes Anderson-patchwork aesthetic, which is its best asset. Despite the original folk tales being quite literally ancient, the nature of Steel City Shakespeare’s work means the text never comes across as staid, academic or predictable. Those unfamiliar with the stories of Sinbad will find themselves genuinely surprised at how weird and off-kilter the tales can be, and those already in the know will find themselves waiting with anticipation for Steel City Shakespeare’s next dynamic interpretation.
Sinbad a balancing act that works thanks to the production team’s ingenuity and attitude. As a result, however, retellings of voyages that feature little in the way of ridiculous fantasy feel meager in comparison to their more over-the-top counterparts. So much of the fun of Steel City Shakespeare’s Sinbad comes from its colorful visuals, and while the cast are active readers who clearly enjoy sinking into their characters, the inconsistency of energy from scene to scene proves to be a limiting factor.
The production I attended didn’t feature much in the way of audience interaction or improvisation due in large part to the rainy weather that had us sat under a tent, and I wonder how much that element may have changed the energy of the show. Switching from Turner to Christian to portray Sinbad works as a framing device, and I like the way the cast is constantly switching from one bit part to another, but I kept wanting the show to take things even further. I was delighted to watch Midence’s sudden transformation into an indignant man-bird replete with huge blue wings in one scene, and there was something distinctly funny in watching the cast go from well-meaning neighbors to mass murderers during the fourth voyage. Earlier on, however, the cast mimics insanity as they feast on poisoned food – everyone commits to the moment, sure, but there’s just not enough happening visually there to really capture the moment.
There is a fable in Sinbad in which the eponymous hero finds the Old Man of the Sea, who straps his legs to Sinbad with the grip of a boa constrictor around his neck. The Old Man rides Sinbad like a tricycle, ordering him around and cackling about it for days and weeks – which means we get a passage in which Sinbad reveals that the Old Man was frequently relieving himself during the trip. It’s an odd passage in the original text, and not particularly exciting. Steel City Shakespeare’s production, which features an adorable puppet operated on Christian’s back, elevates what may have otherwise been a strange, awkwardly paced aside in the larger story. Steel City Shakespeare’s embrace of playfulness makes it a highlight, in fact. By contrast, a story revolving around a giant who cooks Sinbad’s crew alive and then eats them seems almost barebones. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare that is making a story with that much gore into a scene easily presentable to a family, but until gaps like these are bridged the show won’t feel as cohesive as it needs to.
Steel City Shakespeare’s The Seven Voyages of Sinbad is literary epic as theatric playground, and I love that about it. I just think it could use an extra swing set or two.
The Seven Voyages of Sinbad runs at the Fineview Overlook through October 15. For more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of John T. Beck.