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Theater Review O’Neill, under sail, rides the winds of ‘Caribbees’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE MOON OF THE CARIBBEES, by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Simon Hammerstein. Starring Con Horgan, Brian Townes, James Beecher, Gordon Holmes, Erika Bowman and Cynthia K. Brown. Produced by the Bat Theater Company, in association with Last Minute Productions. At Downstairs at the Flea theater, 41 White S., NYC. Through Feb. 24.

The impact of such resoundingly Irish and Irish-derived writers as G.B. Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill is so pervasive and so enduring that scarcely a week goes by without one or even more of them being represented by a new production on a New York stage.

At present, it’s O’Neill, and "The Moon of the Caribbees," one of the famous cluster of one-act "sea plays" he wrote in 1916 and ’17, drawing on his memories of the days, starting in the late spring of 1910, he’d spent under sail as an ordinary seaman on the crew of the Charles Racine, a Norwegian steel bark, one of the last of the square-riggers still competing with the steamers that had begun to dominate the seas in the final years of the 19th Century.

O’Neill left the ship in Buenos Aires and, after some fairly rough months doing odd jobs in the Argentinean city, a period during which the young writer approached down-and-out derelict status, he finally signed on board a British tramp steamer, the Ikalis, for a month-long voyage home, the month being May 1911. O’Neill had turned 22 at sea, shortly before reaching Buenos Aires.

For the purposes of the maritime plays, the Ikalis became the S.S. Glencairn, which provided the overall title when four of the short works were eventually produced together as a full evening.

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O’Neill specified the location of "The Moon of the Caribbees" as "a section of the main deck of the Glencairn, at anchor off an island in the West Indies."

For the new staging of the play, lasting a little under an hour, and performed just three nights a week, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 10, director Simon Hammerstein has evoked, in the limited downstairs space at the Flea Theater, a mesmerizing approximation of everything O’Neill had in mind.

Utilizing a cast of 23 actors in a rectangular space roughly one-and-a-half times the size of the interior of a subway car, Hammerstein manages to keep the mainly plotless action of the play ebbing and flowing like a kind of human tide, raucous one moment and placid the next, but always entirely credible.

The production’s opening image is so startling and so unexpected that to describe it would only destroy its breathtaking impact. Suffice it to say that the remarkable moment couldn’t possibly be achieved in a normal theater space.

If "The Moon of the Caribbees," essentially an ensemble piece, could be said to have major characters, they are Driscoll, described by O’Neill as "a powerfully built, brawny Irishman with the battered features of a prize fighter," and Smitty, a British remittance man who had first appeared in an earlier sea play, "Bound East for Cardiff," which O’Neill had written in the 1913-14 season, and who turns up again in "In the Zone."

In Hammerstein’s admirable production, a well-cast Con Horgan stands out as Driscoll, as does Brian Townes as the mysterious, silent, well-bred Briton, bearer of a secret which will be cruelly hounded out of him by his fellow crew members in a later play.

In an astonishingly well-balanced and deftly directed cast, James Beecher is a commanding First Mate, while Gordon Holmes is a credible and sympathetic Yank, with Erika Bowman and Cynthia K. Brown scoring as two of the island women whom the shipmates invite on board in the hope of acquiring rum or sex or, if possible, both.

Joel Douek’s musical direction is strongly helpful, ranging as it does from the distant singing of the islanders to the rough snatches of sea chanteys and folk songs sung by the men on deck.

The costumes by Jacqueline Firkins combine with Ben Struck’s lighting designs and the fight choreography by Ian Marshall and the movement worked out by Chris Gattelli to bolster the impressive degree of verisimilitude achieved by director Hammerstein and his gifted and diverse cast.

"The Moon of the Caribbees," yet another bit of evidence testifying to the vast power the plays of Eugene O’Neill, if they are done with insight and imagination, as this one most definitely is, can still generate.

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