Chicago Theater Review: THE WHALESHIP ESSEX (Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 6, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


A thrilling feat that reclaims the past, The Whaleship Essex is sailor-playwright Joe Forbrich’s detailed and driving reimagining of an 1820 tragedy that, 30 years later, inspired Herman Meville to write Moby Dick. A superb achievement by the 15-member ensemble, Shattered Globe Theatre’s Midwest premiere is a richly textured depiction of a doomed whaleship’s final journey (the portentous omen of a comet was ignored). Well researched (there’s a glossary for the sailing jargon), musically delightful (great sea chanteys), and impeccably accurate (no zippers, just buttons, on these pants created by Sara Jo White), it works as a rampaging staging that puts us there and makes us see, hear, smell, and feel it all. It’s also a warning against the danger of dependence on oil, whatever the source.

The cast of Shattered Globe Theatre’s Midwest premiere of THE WHALESHIP ESSEX.

The hubris of these Nantucket cetacean killers, catering to a young republic’s insatiable need for costly energy, earned its nemesis: In apparent revenge, a sperm whale twice rams the Essex–whose attacks had enraged the mammal–staving in its bow and sending the three whaleboats (now lifeboats) into a fascinating survival saga from which only eight survived.

Josh Nordmark (far left) with (left to right) Brad Woodard, Zach Bloomfield, Antonio Zhiurinskas, Drew Schad and Ben Werling in Shattered Globe Theatre’s Midwest premiere of THE WHALESHIP ESSEX.

Fully rigged and shipshape, Ann Davis’s cutaway set exposes the ship’s deck and cargo hold, with mystic illustrations provided by Michael Stanfill’s all-telling backdrop projections. It’s a supple setting for the prologue: In 1850, a former cabin boy now called the Proprietor meets an unnamed New England writer (Joseph Wiens) and his wife (Bridget Schrieber) to whom he offers lodging. They get much more. This haunted gentleman, whose memoir would not be discovered until 1984, tells a tall but true tale, the harrowing account of a hunting vessel destroyed by its quarry and the lessons to be learned. Much like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, the Proprietor is condemned to share his story until an even greater one preserves it forever.

The cast in Shattered Globe Theatre’s Midwest premiere of THE WHALESHIP ESSEX.

Sailing to the Pacific because the Atlantic had been harvested of sperm whales by a rapacious industry (that, alas, still thrives in Japan), the 20-year-old Essex is captained by genial George Pollard (Brad Woodard definitely not recreating Captain Ahab). His authority is doggedly challenged by Owen Chase (Joseph Wiens), Pollard’s envious and cruel first mate who would later turn recluse, haunted by nightmares and survivor guilt after writing his memoir of the shipwreck and its aftermath.

Lionel Gentle, Darren Jones, Alif Muhammad and Joseph Wiens with the cast of Shattered Globe Theatre’s Midwest premiere of THE WHALESHIP ESSEX

On board are a bi-racial cross-section of New England seafarers, combating sea sickness, a fire that destroys an entire species of Galapagos tortoises, squalls, boredom, TB, disgusting meals of hardtack, and the accidents that beset a “Nantucket sleigh ride” after harpooning the behemoth. They’re as indelibly portrayed as Melville would convey the victims of the Pequod. These include the captain’s 17-year-old cousin, the ominously named Owen Coffin (Antonio Zhiurinskas) whose death is the show’s saddest scene; 19-year-old Charles Ramsdell (Drew Schad), a rambunctious rebel who must be tamed into duty; able seaman Richard Peterson (Darren Jones), an old salt who reluctantly discovers how inequitably the black sailors are treated; an English boatsteerer (Jon Stutzman) fighting his addiction to the opiate laudanum; and the unsinkable 14-year-old cabin boy played by a girl (Angie Shriner). (As if to balance the mainly male artists–cast, director and author–the design team and production staff are women.)

The telling ingredients of a three-year nautical voyage around the Horn and into the next ocean abound. Then, little more than three months after departure from their island base, on November 20, 1820 an angry sperm whale turned the tables, transforming the journey from a routine expedition into a fight for survival.

Ben Werling (back center), Brad Woodard (front left) and the cast of Shattered Globe Theatre’s Midwest premiere of THE WHALESHIP ESSEX.

The equally captivating second act details three little whaleboats with 20 sailors in a vast ocean contending with starvation, thirst (they drank their own urine), leaks, feuds, misdirection, their fear of finding an island of cannibals,  their own cannibalism–and, well, everything but sharks.

Had they only sailed west instead of south, Melville surmised, they would have survived. Slowly death picks 12 of them off. (Our proto-Moby Dick continues its payback.) Sacrificed for greed, the dead mariners find unsought immortality in a trenchantly American novel of obsession triggering vengeance. (Interestingly, at least five more ships were later attacked by whales, with two foundering.) It’s all delivered with stunning, you-are-there particularity in Lou Contey’s enthralling adventure epic. Book your passage now.

photos by Emily Schwartz

The Whaleship Essex
Shattered Globe Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont
Thurs – Sat at 8; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on October 11, 2014
for tickets, call 773-975-8150 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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