Moments of bewilderment, outrage, psychological unraveling and genuine misery collide in unanticipated ways to create the peculiar experience of watching Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Conservatory Theatre Company’s adaptation of Edward Bond’s The Sea. Set in 1907, in an idyllic English harbor town, the play seeks to function as an exoskeletal reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a majestic portrayal of deception—as is so commonly a trope of Shakespeare’s endeavors—that is caged in a very real yet very metaphoric tempestuous, calamitous storm. Cabot’s The Sea uses the elements of subterfuge and the premise of a fated marriage-to-be, but the verisimilitudes are not so apparent that they congest the flow of Cabot’s piece or the reception of the play.
Which, quite frankly, is to the play’s benefit. Cabot’s adaption of Bond’s surreal piece is so precariously predicated on gradual reveal and slow burning, unfurling absurdity that to have any palpable connections or similarities to a formidable forefather like Shakespeare. There is much to acclimate to and digest in the first moments of The Sea, that to have an allusion-besotted presentation would be to the play’s detriment. The dramaturgy opens in chaos and cacophony—a violent storm besieges a harbor; a man bellows in the distance desperately for help, presumably for his drowning compatriot. In the midst of this turmoil, two men enter the scene in view of the audience—one, a stumbling, clearly intoxicated ruffian, laughing and shouting at the man crying for help; the other, a rigid, aggressively admonishing shore-watchman, barking that he “knows” who the man seeking help is, and that he should go back where he came from. It is perhaps one of the most attention grabbing openings to a play I have witnessed in the past few months—the proper amount of discombobulation is coupled with the appropriate amount of story implementation. Even in my jetlagged delirium that consumed me during the show, I was riveted from the first few seconds, much of which should be attributed to the phenomenal stage design—an ambient, bleakly minimalist stage with an overturned boat, a displaced steer, overturned boxes and various other pieces of wreckage. Before the action even fully commences, the audience is in a state of unrest.
Once the story begins to unfold, there are moments in which the play struggles to find its sea legs (to be inexorably trite). The play—which focuses on the death of the man in the storm, an established member of the town’s community (who was set to be betrothed to the niece of an extravagantly wealth and arrogant dignitary in the town)—is too encumbered with the theatrics and dialect flourishes of the cast in the opening scenes of the play. Perhaps this is the intention, but the emphatic establishment of the accents and mannerisms of the cast is, at first, difficult to settle into. There is a bit too much pomp where subtly would have benefitted.
This is not to say, however, the play misfires or does not find it’s rhythm. The heavily embellished performances in the first few moments of the play may, in fact, be to the play’s benefit in the long run. Embellishment and rocky acclimation help to obfuscate the more fascinatingly insidious elements of the play, and the moments in which certain characters manifest their outrageous or peculiar eccentricities and arcs are augmented by the juxtaposition to how their character first appeared. This is no more evident than with the character of Mrs. Rafi, the aforementioned wealthy and arrogant dignitary, aunt to the fiancé of the deceased. Emma Mercier is extraordinary in her portrayal of the haughty and scathing Mrs. Rafi, who executes her absurdist town hall plays with the same repulsive precision as she does with her judgmental social interactions. Rafi is first jarring, though, because she comes across almost as a caricature—pristine, shrill English diction; outlandishly austere social conduct, etc.—but Mercier settles into the role so exquisitely that she dictates the humor and freneticism that carries the play from the realm of tropic, into one of utterly compelling.
Psychological dismantling, pronounced twirks, and subtle insanity drives the rest of the The Sea. Much of the enjoyment of watching the play from both watching the phenomenally talented cast, but also watching the play develop into its own throughout the course of the whirlwind story.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets. The Sea runs through December 4th in the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Theatre. Tickets and more information can be found here.