Review: Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF): ‘pen/man/ship’

The Contemporary American Theater Festival opened Friday, July 8, 2016, for the 26th time: five new plays with five new stories to tell.

Brian D. Coats, Edward O’Blenis, and Margaret Ivey. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Brian D. Coats, Edward O’Blenis, and Margaret Ivey. Photo by Seth Freeman.

In Chistina Anderson’s pen/man/ship at the in-the-round Marinoff Theater, the audience is the crew on an old whaling ship bound for Liberia. Charles Boyd, the ship’s African American “impresario”, played by the steely-eyed Brian D. Coats, has secluded himself below deck in his watery cabin with his bible in one hand and his son, played by the hungry-eyed Damian Thompson—in the other.

Enter Ruby Heard, played by a fierce-eyed Margaret Ivey. Too many cruel “masters” and, now, Jim Crow—it’s 1896 and racial segregation has recently become a matter of law across the South—have made it urgent that she land in Liberia as soon as possible to start a new life.

Boyd knows, however, that ships and women mix as poorly as capitalists and the rabble crew. Unfortunately, his son has a fancy for the rebellious Ruby, and Ruby an ear for the common man.

Anderson’s pen/man/ship offers a potent combination: elegantly crafted language, a taut historical situation, and fascinating characters—and Ruby is to die for as she takes on the religious fervor and elitist attitudes of Charles toe-to-toe and stern-to-stern.

Damian Thompson and Margaret Ivey. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Damian Thompson and Margaret Ivey. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Unfortunately, pen/man/ship’s theatrical storytelling does not reveal enough of the characters’ internal dynamics to give full force to their narrative arches. As a result, the play and its thematic coherence remain too hermetic to be appreciated fully, like a 120-year-old treasure chest only slightly ajar. We can peer through the slit and gaze upon the fabulous gifts within, but we will never really know their true shape and weight of this feminist class struggle below sea level.

Might director Lucie Tiberghien have found a way to open more clearly pen/man/ship’s potential? To shine light on its intersecting themes and psychological demises? The play’s subjective tension and its static scenes make such directorial prowess hard to imagine.

Mr. Coats’ performance as the religiously driven, elitist African American entrepreneur, Charles Boyd, is engaging, even as it advances more in a series of tableaux than through theatrical gambits and counters. His isolation chamber–and the subsequent psychological delusions that emerge from it–offers a potential rich territory for making the subjective objective, or the internal external.

Margaret Ivey, as the exceptionally brave and commanding Ruby Heard, gives us a young woman for whom no challenge is too impossible to conquer and no man too brutal to put in his place.

Damien Thompson, as the Charles’ son, Jacob, deeply embodies his father’s tenacity even as he embraces a more vulnerable soul. His “church” scenes with his father resonate.

And then there is Cecil, the “squeeze box” (or accordion) playing crew member whom Charles befriends in his seclusion. Played by Edward O’Blenis, Cecil gives the audience an everyman perspective on the proceedings. Affable, even if filled with a self-deprecating sixth sense that continually undermines his accomplishments, Cecil demonstrates the greatest hope the play offers.

Brian D. Coats and Damian Thompson. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Brian D. Coats and Damian Thompson. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Anderson’s crafting of Cecil’s revelation that he is indeed a member of the “crew”, the very class that Charles so fervently demeans and denies, was noteworthy even if it begged for more confrontation and clarity.

Kris Stone’s set for pen/man/ship was a marvel: a water-filled cabin with deck, with mainsail billowing above. Such visual splendor yearns for a journey.

Tony Galaska’s lights and Trevor Bowen’s costumes added to that sense of transatlantic travel.

Victoria Deiorio’s original music and sound, however, elevated that travel to mythic proportions.

Not necessarily a Heart of Darkness, or a Columbus returning to Spain in chains after voyage #3, Anderson’s historically nuanced pen/man/ship  possesses all the elements of a true exploration of humankind’s proclivity toward evil and of the people who, for whatever reason, summon the courage to stand up to it, hold it at bay, and finally subdue it.

Pen/man/ship and The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) continue through July 31, 2016. Tickets to CATF and for pen/man/ship can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, by calling (800) 999-CATF (2283), or by purchasing them online.


Spine: The 26th Contemporary American Theater Festival: Ed Herendeen’s 26th Snapshot of America’s Theatrical Culture.

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights Interviews: Part 1: Susan Miller and “20th Century Blues” by Sharon J. Anderson.

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights’ Interviews: Part 2: Christina Anderson and “pen/man/ship” by Sharon J. Anderson.

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights Interviews: Part 3: Allison Gregory and “Not Medea.”

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights Interviews: Part 4: Ronan Noone and “The Second Girl” by Sharon J. Anderson.

Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Playwrights Interviews: Part 5: Chisa Hutchinson and “The Wedding Gift” by Sharon J. Anderson.

Susan Miller’s website.

Sharon J. Anderson’s website.

Allison Gregory’s website.

Ronan Noone’s website.

Chisa Hutchinson’s website.


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Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.


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