Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: 'Under the Whaleback'

The Wilma's riveting North American premiere inspires in its depiction of seafaring men.

Review: 'Under the Whaleback'

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Pearce Bunting and Brian Radcliffe in 'Under the Whaleback'

Poets and playwrights have glorified the exploits of seafaring men since Homer’s Odyssey. The Wilma Theater presents a more personal, though no less inspiring, look at this tradition in their riveting North American premiere of Richard Bean’s Under the Whaleback.

Bean’s episodic play portrays the lives of Arctic fisherman across three generations, showing a patrilineage of hardscrabble boys that live long enough to sire sons before expiring in icy underwater tombs.

We meet local fishing icon Cassidy (Pearce Bunting) in 1965; bloodied and drunk before what he hopes his last journey; he portends a certain fate with an uncertain expiration. Seven years later, Darrel (Brian Radcliffe) huddles in another hull off the stormy coast of Iceland, trying to avoid his father’s fate through the use of a survival suit. Much like Jason’s Golden Fleece, this gear offers legitimacy while acting as both protection and talisman, and later becomes a millstone that (in Act II, set 30 years after) drags down a future in which he no longer fishes, and no longer finds purpose.

Blanka Zizka’s probing direction and the efforts of a sensational cast (with a standout performance by Keith Conallen) humanize these modern mariners. They stomp on the stage all bluff and bluster, the hardened shell of boys lured to tame the tempest before finding solace in friendship and family, “all that matters,” as Darrel later tells.

Zizka’s poignant pacing trawls through themes of fathers and sons, generational conflict, and the existential isolation and despair of men figuratively and literally trapped in a hull for 40 weeks a year. Humor bristles through in rough jokes; never enough to let us forget that generations of these sailors died so that the English could eat fish and chips.

In the Wilma’s startling production, Daniel Perelman’s sound design places dozens of speakers in the aisles amidst the audience, rendering sounds of whales and barges and violent weather that call forth agonizing cries. Set on hydraulic stilts, Matt Saunders’ skeletal shell of a ship heaves and lists in the storms of Allen Hahn’s lighting; the hull creaks, sailors tumble across the deck; safe from danger, we roll with them.

Far fewer of these fragile trawlers now take to the seas for fishing, and the courageous men who manned them in their heyday exist today in reality shows or retirement. Their legend lives at the Wilma, as only a playwright could tell it. 

Under the Whaleback. Presented through April 7 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $39 to $66. Information: 215-546-7824 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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