Oh build your ship of death, your little arkand furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine for the dark flight down oblivion.--D. H. Lawrence, “The Ship of Death"
How do they do it? How does the Yale Cabaret take a story of utter desperation—the doomed expedition of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, under the command of Sir John Franklin, in search of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Ocean in 1845—and make an entertaining evening of it?
Maybe it’s because director Devin Brain heads to the dark side the way most kids go to their favorite playground, and because the ensemble cast are clearly having so much fun in this dire tale of dwindling hopes. And maybe it’s because the many tunes in the show, sea shanties like “What do you do with a drunken sailor?” and jigs like “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” are so irrepressibly infectious.
Conceived by Alexandra Henrikson, who is luminous as Franklin’s indefatigable wife back home, resolutely refusing to consider herself his widow, Erebus and Terror is credited to the cast, and that could be why the parts seem so perfect for each actor: Max Gordon Moore, clipped and distinguished as Officer Downing; Ben Horner, swarthy and bawdy as Ferry (his eager pursuit of Lady Death is a high-point, to say nothing of dining upon the deceased Downing); Andrew Kelsey as Oxford, a sympathetic bloke who gives an effective delivery of the seductive speech of Titania to “translated” Bottom in the crew’s impromptu enactment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Stéphanie Hayes, skittish and fearful as Paddy, a young Irish lad (her shrieks of joy from the crow’s nest have a “top of the world, ma” feel); Dipika Guha, wide-eyed and mesmerized as Fin, a mate going “off his tit,” and Irene Sofia Lucio, as Timmy, or Kid, the youngest and most comical of the swabbies. Add Pierre Bourgeois’s songs, richly evocative of the world of these seamen, all bound—in a string of distinctive endings—for Davey Jones’ Locker, and you’ve got the main elements for a successfully gripping show, supported by Ken Goodwin’s watery sound effects, by Lighting Designer Alan C. Edwards’ dramatic variations of light and dark that, playing on Aaron P. Mastin’s authentic costumes, put me in mind of Rockwell Kent’s nautical drawings, and, through the exit door that was opened a few times as part of Julia C. Lee’s set, by mounds of snow provided by Nature, making the effort to imagine the frozen wastes surrounding the ship that much easier.
Have you built your ship of death, O have you? O build your ship of death, for you will need it.
Erebus and Terror, Songs of Ghosts and Dreams Conceived by Alexandra Henrikson; Written and Created by the Ensemble January 13-15, 2011; Thurs, 8 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m. & 11 p.m. The Yale Cabaret