'Liquid' adrift in a sea of messages

It's said that if the history play is a type of drama, its only successful practitioner was William Shakespeare. "The Liquid Plain," a baffling new play by the award-winning playwright Naomi Wallace, will do nothing to challenge that assertion.

Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, "The Liquid Plain," which had its world premiere Saturday night in the OSF's Thomas Theatre, shows the pitfalls of attempting to fashion the materials of history into a stage play.

It's based on an actual incident in which the captain of a slave ship who believed that an individual among his human cargo had smallpox and threw the woman overboard.

The play Wallace derived from that story was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its American Revolutions history cycle, an ambitious, decade-long project conceived by Artistic Director Bill Rauch. The program has already given us such extraordinary theater experiences as 2010's fantastical "American Night" and 2011's multi-layered "Ghost Light," but it also served up last year's meandering "Party People."

"The Liquid Plain" is not a history play in the sense of Shakespeare, whose histories examined the gaining and losing of power in a search for a cure for chaos and a definition of right kingship. But the play certainly engages with history as it seeks to trace the harrowing effects of young America's "unique institution" between continents and generations.

Part history-inflected drama then, part dark comedy and part revenge tragedy, with a considerable dose of melodrama, the play is set in 1791 in Bristol, R.I. The seaport is a center for the slave trade, sending ships to West Africa to pick up slaves to be traded for molasses in the Caribbean, which will be made into rum to be traded for more slaves, and so on in an endless triangle.

This trade was an example of what's called a virtuous circle in economics. In human terms, of course, it was one of the most vicious circles imaginable.

The play's slaver, Capt. De Woolf (Michael Winters), boasts cheerily at one point in the play that he lost "only" a small number — fewer than 20! — of his human chattel to death on the voyage in question.

Adjua (June Carryl), an escaped slave who was born free in West Africa, and her lover, Dembi (Kimberly Scott), an escaped slave from South Carolina, are scavenging a living as wharf rats on the docks of Bristol when a white man (Danforth Comins), nearly drowned and suffering from amnesia, washes ashore. They call him Thomas, and he joins them. Tension rises between Dembi and "Thomas," who wants Adjua.

The three are soon joined by Balthazar (Armando Duran), an Irish sailor who unravels the mystery of Thomas, who is actually Cranston, a man who testified against Capt. De Woolf (Michael Winters), who de-shipped the unfortunate woman at sea, and Liverpool Joe (Kevin Kenerly), a black sea captain, rogue and dandy from England, who agrees to transport the lovers to Africa and enlist the white men as crew members.

If this sounds like the setup for an 18th century picaresque novel, it plays like it, at least early on. Meanwhile, Alex Koch's projections provide a roiling briny deep in the background of Brenda Davis's spare rendition of the hardscrabble Bristol wharf.

There are oddities. Thomas/Cranston, in 1791, has lines such as, "I'll be straight with you." Liverpool Joe reveals that he's named his new ship The Leak.

The characters have mysterious illnesses or disabilities. Adjua limps. "Thomas" has amnesia, and Cranston has a "guinea worm" in his leg. Balthazar wears a pirate eye patch (I kept expecting a parrot). And there's something just not right about Dembi.

These traits are metaphors for the deleterious effects of slavery on individuals and societies, or something.

Fear is another theme, as in the fear driving Wallace's characters apart, and fear of contagion when De Woolfe threw the helpless woman into the sea. Perhaps the fear of whites as rumors spread of slave uprisings in the Caribbean.

By intermission the whole thing had taken on a decidedly soap opera-ish cast. But it seemed to have a spine on which to hang its various trappings. The spine, I thought, was Adjua's quest for justice.

But after intermission it turns out that Wallace has hit the fast forward, and we are in a different time, and since to reveal Adjua's fate would be a spoiler, let's just say she's in no shape to seek justice. And once the potboiler escape-from-America plot is abandoned for presumably deeper matters, things grow as murky as New England maritime fog.

The reveal of the identity of a long-lost relative is a familiar meme from novels of the play's time, and we see this one coming. We also see coming from the time it's a speck on the sea's horizon the answer to a question of parentage. What we don't see is where whatever momentum the play had earlier is now heading.

Nor do we forsee in the midst of all this the coming of the corpse-like ghost of the English Romantic poet William Blake, who for some reason turns up on a gibbet on the docks of Bristol with his guts spilling out and engages in a long, poetic discourse about, well, lots of stuff that seems terribly important. By this time we are drifting very far from the shore.

There is no doubt that Wallace, who lives in Kentucky and in nothern England and is a winner of the Horton Foote Prize for most promising new American play and a MacArthur Fellowship (genius grant), intends to trace some of the horiffic effects of slavery on disparate cultures and individuals over time.

And one doesn't doubt the commitment to the play of Kwei-Armah (who in his day job is the artistic director of Centerstage in Baltimore, Md.), whose great-great-great grandfather came from Ghana and was sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

But despite some nice flourishes here and there, "The Liquid Plain" fails to arrange itself into anything recognizable as compelling theater. The plot jumps the shark sometime around intermission, and we're lost at sea. Once that happens the actors seem to be foundering.

The overall impression is that of a play still in need of being workshopped.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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