With a plot that involves smuggled marijuana from Canada, a Pokémon-themed restaurant and Fruit by the Foot, “Independents” begins with a nonsensical feel. As the musical progresses, however, its plot takes a more pensive, philosophical turn that is at once entertaining and insightful.
“Independents,” an original Yale musical, features a dynamic ensemble cast with an infectious energy that lures you in from the first scene. The show opens to Liam (Raph Shapiro ’13), the leader of the ship’s crew, playing a guitar and singing of the ship’s current base at Plymouth Harbour. The other cast members step on stage, and their voices fill the theater as they prepare to turn their marijuana-smuggling, 18th-century privateer schooner into the set of a revolutionary re-enactment. They celebrate the eve of their new operation with many drinks and a song in which they declare, “I’d rather die a stoner in the summer than a forward-thinking loner in the fall!” From the outset, it’s clear that you’re in for a ride.
Featuring characters like an unwitting white “slave” with perfect deadpan and a never-seen but ever-endearing younger brother named Teddy, the musical skillfully skirts the division of absurdity from touching reality. In between the dramatic ensemble song and dance scenes, director Charlie Polinger ’13 weaves in intimate interactions between the characters. We follow Liam as he struggles with the conflicting desires of himself and his girlfriend, Isabel (Julie Shain ’13), as well as his budding feelings for another girl on board the ship, Grace (Sarah Rosen ’12). We empathize with Isabel when she expresses her longing to settle down, and yet we can’t help but be moved by Liam’s fear of losing the freedom of his youth. In these moments of introspection, the emotional power of Marina Keegan’s ’12 writing shines through: she makes an unfamiliar setting and unusual plotline into a story that is wholly familiar and relatable.
“Do you ever feel like you’re spinning?” asks Grace.
The genius of “Independents” lies in its seamless interweaving of drunken party scenes with moments of startling clarity and contemplation. Thanks to the diligence of one guileless professional period actor named Carl (Michael Rosen ’13), the crew’s re-enactment of a revolutionary battle over fish attracts the attention of tourists at the pier. Liam and his crew are optimistic about their ability to repay their debts, and they begin to take pride in the lawfulness of their new enterprise. Then the characters are placed before the choice of a year of commitment to their new business or their usual life of impermanence, and we are reminded of the decisions we face as college students reluctant to confront the real world.
Near the musical’s end, Jaimy (Brendan Ternus ’12) launches into a monologue that begins, “I kissed Sarah for the first time when I was 13.” What follows is a moving reflection on the fleeting nature of love and, ultimately, the sometimes sad, circular patterns that define our lives.
“All of us are held as children, and then we’re alone until we fall in love,” says Jaimy with a touch of nostalgic melancholy. He recalls the three times that he has fallen in and out of love, describing his feelings as “dripping away like sand down a dune.” The musical ends with the characters entering a new chapter of their lives, but it never answers their questions about where to go or how to live. We leave the show with these questions lingering. Though the ship on which the characters live never strays too far from the harbor, by the end of it all, we are left with the impression that we have braved a long, harrowing and all-too-familiar journey.