“The Whaleship Essex” an epic tale of loss and survival at sea

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The cast of Joe Forbrich’s epic play, “The Whaleship Essex,” in a Shattered Globe Theatre production.“THE WHALESHIP ESSEX”HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through Oct. 11

Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $30

Info: (773) 975-8150; http://www.theaterwit.org

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

There is something about those great white whales — those emperors of the oceans — that continue to grab hold of our imaginations and refuse to let go, even now, as we no longer hunt and murder them for the oil that will keep our machines humming. Herman Melville’s epic, “Moby Dick,” remains the ultimate testament to man’s obsession with the creature. But if you are going to tell the story of the hunt for whales that was both a necessity and an obsession for centuries, it cannot be divorced from a meditation on the power of the sea to brutally turn men’s pride and greed against them, and then, when all seems lost, to reveal what they are really made of.In “The Whaleship Essex,” now in a thrilling, vividly physical Midwest premiere by Shattered Globe Theatre, playwright Joe Forbrich (who also is an actor, director, designer, sailor and boat builder), hurls us into the story of the voyage by the ill-fated ship that inspired “Moby Dick.” And for two riveting hours, in collaboration with ingenious director Lou Contey and his ship-shape cast of 15, he has us riding the waves along with the ship’s captain and crew — men who, on Aug. 11, 1819, left Nantucket island for a three-year-expedition, and part way through the voyage met with disaster and tragedy as the Essex was attacked and destroyed by an enraged sperm whale.The attack left the surviving crew adrift in three life boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for several months. The choices each man makes as the possibility of ever returning home grows increasingly remote is the real meat here, and says much about human nature under the most extreme duress.The preparation for the voyage, on a ship that was problematic from the start, bears echoes of “Billy Budd,” another great Melville tale about life at sea, as Forbrich introduces us to Captain George Pollard (Brad Woodard), at the helm for the first time, and the model of decency, civility and enlightenment in an environment not known for any of those things. We also meet Pollard’s nemesis — the sadistic First Mate, Owen Chase (Joseph Wiens, in another brilliant turn, right on the heels of his triumph in Redtwist’s “Look Back in Anger”) — who wields a whip, deeply resents not being in charge, and vents his rage on the captain’s boyish cousin, Owen Coffin (Antonio Zhiurinskas). Owen is befriended by young Thomas Nickerson (a “pants role” deftly played by Angie Shriner), and Charles Ramsdell (Drew Schad), the fearless young man who stands up to Chase.The realities of whaling are beyond harsh and abusive, and most who go to sea will end up more impoverished than when they began — victims of a Pay Day Loan sort of scheme. A strict hierarchy is in place, with a racial divide between blacks and whites, newbies and veterans. When all goes wrong, some cling to the Bible. Others fight for their rights. Some succumb to cannibalism. Others are sacrificed. Some wish to die, as starvation, thirst and sun exact a horrific toll. Others persevere, often ending up as rueful survivors. Along the way, Forbrich shows us everything from how a ship is provisioned, to how a whale is chased, harpooned and boiled in its own oil.The production has a monumental feel as the distinctive actors (who also include Ben Werling, Jon Stutzman, Darren Jones, Alif Muhammad, Lionel Gentle, Steve Peebles, Zach Bloomfield, Kevin Viol, Josh Nordmark, and, on land, Bridget Schreiber), throw themselves into its physical demands on Ann Davis’ marvelous ship set. And when all is lost, they make three benches morph into lifeboats, with Michael Stanfill’s stirring video projections of a roiling sea enough to make you feel tempest-tossed.The story has a surprise ending I will not reveal. Just another reason to sign on for this remarkable voyage.

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