When the first line of a play about an Arctic expedition is a toast “to our absent friends,” one does not expect a happy ending. Yet the predictable storyline receives depth and energy when rendered through songs, chants, and ballads.
The Yale Cabaret kicks off its 2011 season this weekend with “Erebus and Terror: Songs of Ghosts and Dreams,” written by an ensemble of Yale School of Drama students and directed by Devin Brain DRA ’11. The show opens on a lone sailor performing a simple elegy for the ill-fated Franklin expedition, which disappeared while seeking the Northwest Passage. As his voice is accompanied by an increasing number of unseen voices, the song seems to evoke the spirits of the lost souls.
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Much of the play is performed through songs, ranging from melancholic Irish ballads to drunken-sailor shanties featuring vulgar lyrics and nasty images (one mentions “menstrual stew”). The actors’ singing captured the emotional experience present in the lyrics. Mrs. Franklin (Alexandra Hendrikson DRA ’11, who also conceived the idea for the play) convincingly embodies the anguish caused by the disappearance of her husband and his crew. She sings the phrase “Blow, winds,” repeatedly, but every repetition carries a new and different emotional resonance. At the end of the scene, she lights a match and then blows it out, the wafting smoke smoothly transporting us to the cabin of the HMS Erebus just as it departs from England.
Although the play has a somber plot, Lieutenant Downing (Max Gordon Moore DRA ’11) provides the audience moments of levity and laughter through dry British humor, while the cynical ex-convict Ferry (Ben Horner DRA ’11) occasionally pokes fun at Paddy (Stéphanie Hayes DRA ’11), an overenthusiastic Irishman on board. There is also a brief scene taken from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” when Oxford the sailor (Andrew Z. Kelsey DRA ’11) plays the role of Titania the fairy queen falling in love with a donkey (in other words, a sailor with sock ears). Through these brief humorous scenes and small conversations, the crew members reveal their distinct personalities, but the audience does not learn more about their histories and must settle for snippets of their pasts.
All levity and digression stop immediately, however, at the sound of the whistle, which serves as the maritime death toll. The passing of each sailor is symbolized by a fellow sailor carrying the dead man’s boots. The first death does not give much reason for worry; after all, death at sea is not uncommon. Once the captain dies, however, the sailors’ nightly song praising the Lord becomes ever more somber as the number of orphaned boots steadily grows.
Hendrikson embodies many different roles, but is always dressed as Mrs. Franklin, either as the captain’s wife fervently writing letters inquiring about her husband’s fate, or as the narrator contextualizing the scene onstage. The latter role, however, distracted from the main action on the ship and felt superfluous. Seeing Hendrikson take on the persona of a siren was unexpected but effective, and the role added a Homeric allusion to the already numerous allusions in the play, including references to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the Bible (which is used to justify a particularly gruesome decision).
Watching the play, one feels as though she is already at the wake (or the Irish wake at times) looking back on the experience, as if the audience is a ghostly presence observing the downfall of the Franklin expedition. But due to the predictability of the storyline, the end fell flat despite the creativity of the songs. One does not feel the deep sorrow that Mrs. Franklin suffers through the ten years during which she searched for her husband, perhaps because the play itself does not successfully portray the passage of time; it felt as if the expedition and the discovery of its remains took place one after the other.
The songs in “Erebus” provide bursts of vitality, but when the music fades, so does the ensemble’s innovative spirit, leaving the audience cold.
“Erebus and Terror” runs through Saturday at the Yale Cabaret.