This past weekend, Cambridge was brutally attacked by a play and a movie both detailing troubling boat trips half way around the world. The play, "Female Transport" by Steve Gooch, was directed by Jason Southerland, the Institute for Advanced Training's first year directing student, and showed some artistic potential, but was doomed to failure by its subject matter. "White Squall," Ridley Scott's latest film, was mauled by its script and story, which many reviewers have referred to as "Dead Poet's Society on a Boat." Luckily, both productions were chock full of pleasant visuals for those who enjoy the sight of cute boys.
"Female Transport" is set on a ship carrying female convicts from England to Australia in 1809. It is a historical play that dramatizes the horrible experiences women had on the ships, which were used to relieve bursting correctional facilities. Virtually all the action takes place in one cell, where six women share two mattresses, little space and all of their experiences.
Better written (and acted) than your average "Women in Prison" movie, the plot is still basically the same: there are a bunch of women locked in a small, dirty space; some of them are lesbians; they are all rude and nasty; they fight with the guards; the guards fight back; the guards get involved with them and/or try to rape them; the warden is evil; through the whole trying experience, someone dies, and the rest of them become better people and closer friends through all of it. Yawn.
It seems as if the Institute for Advanced Theater Training was not entirely supportive of "Female Transport." Clearly very little money was funneled into the production, and Southerland was forced to utilize a theater space that only Morlocks could love. The set was spare and much was left to the imagination. The sound, full of excellent boat noises and somewhat odd, but nonetheless dramatic music, was not emanating from good speakers. And the lighting was severe.
The Quincy Cage, a former storage room in the basement of Quincy House, is not an ideal space for a production: it's difficult to light, oddly shaped, and the ceiling is only about eight feet off the ground. Southerland used it well, though. The audience was put inside the cage, facing the prison cell, flanked on the right by the captain's quarter's, and on the left, through a chain link fence, the hallway of the hold. The actors also walked behind the audience. There was a definite sense that you were in the ship (well, if you can truly suspend disbelief).
Overall, the acting of the women was excellent. Deborah Brightman as Winnie, the matronly know-it-all, was superb. Teresa Hegji was excellent as the bitchy, uncontrollable Nance. Pamela Hart played Charlotte, a sexy professional pick-pocket, with aplomb. Jada Robert's Pitty, on the other hand, was a little too crazy, even though her character was insane. Of the men (all of whom are extremely good-looking), only Jay Boyer, who played the 16 year-old deck hand Tommy, stood out. His transformation from a shy innocent to a more mature, jaded sailor was convincing. Steve Harper's Sarge, while sufficiently creepy and evil, was hard to take and somewhat annoying.
Southerland's direction was interesting. He used flashes of bright white light and well-situated still action to show the passage of time, and the frantic, disturbing opening was well conceived. However, the constraints of the space and the lack of good tech clouded any conceptual clarity. Also helping to prevent a tight production were the actors, who fumbled their lines several times.
What ultimately condemned "Female Transport" was not the space or the direction, though, it was the play itself. It's a fine script about a dreadfully dull, unpleasant topic. All of the characters are unattractive and their plight does not inspire. Most of the time, you are looking forward to the ship landing at Sydney, not because you want to end the misery of these women, but to end your own.
While "Female Transport" was grating, "White Squall," another true story, this one about the fateful 1960 voyage of the school ship Albatross, is manipulative. Through annoying direction and a terrible script, you are forced to care about all of the characters, setting up an emotional windfall after several of them drown. However, if you're too busy laughing at lines like, "Do you know what's out there? Some wind and rain and some damn big waves," you'll hardly have time to cry at the end.
If anything, the actual story is compelling. A group of extremely handsome teen-aged boys (Jeremy Sisto, Balthazar Getty, and Scott Wolf, among others) go on a voyage from the Caribbean to the Galapagos and back on a boat manned by cool teachers (John Savage and Caroline Goodall) and a studly, charismatic captain (Jeff Bridges). While learning discipline and the finer points of ocean sailing, they also study their ABCs. And of course, they discover friendship, sex and alcohol. Unfortunately, disaster ensues. A freak storm sinks the boat, killing four, and the coast guard blames the father figure. You can guess what happens next.
The film is beautifully shot. Both the actual landscape (lush islands, ocean sunsets, shockingly powerful surf) and the human landscape (wet t-shirts, naked torsos, bulging muscles) are fun to look at. The storm scene, where several tidal waves bash the Albatross to bits, is fantastically directed. It is terrifying and electrifying, and not surprising from the director of "Blade Runner" and "Alien." However, Scott could have done without the lingering shots of the drowning victims.
The cast does a great job with their roles, even if they are shamed by their lines. The boys are good actors, especially Getty as the angry rough-and-tumble greaser. Scott Wolf does an excellent Tom Cruise imitation. And Jeff Bridges is a perfect father figure. Too perfect. The script sinks any hopes the characters had of being deep or moving. Todd Robinson, the screen writer, is living proof anyone can get a job in Hollywood. The script is trite ("Oh, the power of the wind!") and too ambitious ("Today I finally understand Homer: the journey's the thing").
Wait for the video.