Eugene O’Neill’s early maritime heart-wrenchers, Bound East for Cardiff and In the Zone, are brought to life in the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s devastatingly effective site-specific production of THE SEA PLAYS. Staged on and below the deck of the Tall Ship Gazela, the one-act half-hour shorts, inspired by the playwright’s own experiences of 1907, when he shipped off to sea, could find no more appropriate venue than the old wooden sailing vessel of 1901, docked on the waterfront at Penn’s Landing. Along with the actors, the audience experiences the enormity of the sky and waters that encompass the historic ship, and enjoy a few lively choruses of “Blow the Man Down,” before descending into the thick sweltering air, cramped space, and claustrophobic conditions of the sailors’ living quarters.
Under the brilliant vision of director Damon Bonetti, a stellar cast assumes not only the accents of the international crew (Brian McCann’s Irish brogue and Adam Altman’s Scottish burr are particularly fine), but also the roughness, anxieties, and paranoia inherent in this itinerant breed of men, expressed in their ruminations about death, regrets about life, and suspicions about one another. John Lopes is heartbreaking as he wheezes and gurgles his way through a physically demanding role as the dying sailor Yank; McCann as Driscoll is as kind and sympathetic to his friend as a man of his ilk can be; and Brian Ratcliffe, as the more refined young Englishman Smitty, portrays his character’s agony and elicits the audience’s tears as he is left humiliated and sobbing by his ruffian crewmates. Period-style costumes by Katherine Fritz contribute enormously to the authenticity of the production, and contrast the sartorial elegance of The Captain (Mort Paterson) with the griminess of his underlings. David Blatt’s Davis is especially dirty and uncouth, but the entire supporting ensemble—Keith Conallen, Eric Scotolati, Luke Moyer, and Adam Rzepka–is consistently outstanding [Tall Ship Gazela], September 11-23, 2013, fringearts.ticketleap.com/the-sea-plays-bound-east-for-cardiff-and-in-the-zone.