By Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association; photo by Michael Brosilow
There are many ways to examine the catastrophe that was the sinking of the HMS Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. James Cameron’s immensely popular 1997 film version used the disaster as the background for a star-crossed love story between the totally fictional characters of Jack (Leo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), and it is from this version that most people today have likely formed their understandings of what happened to the so-called “unsinkable” ship. Court Theatre and acclaimed director Vanessa Stalling are taking a different tack. In a production that could not be more different from Cameron’s if it tried, Court presents Owen McCafferty’s Titanic (Scenes From the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912), which is exactly what its title suggests: a bare-bones presentation of some of the testimony given at the time. Stalling encloses her actors in plexiglass booths that keep them socially distanced while they explore the often powerful testimony that is made all the more riveting by our knowledge of the horrific scope of the event.
The play is, in essence, a courtroom drama. The “judge” is the titular Commissioner, played with perfect British upper crust stoicism by Alys Shante Dickerson, while five other actors portray a variety of crew members and passengers of the doomed ship as well as questioners ranging from the Solicitor General to lawyers representing various interests. Throughout the questioning, the court seeks to understand whether the whole thing might have been prevented, as well as whether there is any direction to point the blame. They are seeking to find out, among other things, why the ship continued at high speed through an area it knew contained ice, why no one saw the iceberg until they were almost on top of it, why such a high percentage of third-class passengers died, why there were not enough lifeboats, and why those that did exist did not return to the scene of the once the Titanic was gone in order to try to save some of the hundreds of people in the water who, we are told time and again, were screaming for help.
Much of the testimony feels like people seeking to save their own skins, which undoubtedly it was. Some of it is frustrating enough even to make Dickerson’s Commissioner become emotional, none more so than that of Nate Burger’s Joseph Ismay, a high-ranking official of the company that built the ship and someone whom Cameron’s film also points to as responsible. Burger gives Ismay just the right amount of smarmy you-can’t trap-me-into-admitting-my-guilt swagger while making sure that we (as well as the Commissioner and Andy Nagraj’s purposely laconic Attorney General) know what, in all likelihood, really happened.
Another tense bit of testimony comes from Bri Sudia as both Sir and Lady Duff-Gordon, who stand in for all the first-class voyagers who placed their own lives at far greater value than those of their “lessers.” In this case, they must answer statements by others that they insisted that their half-full lifeboat not return to pick up some of the drowning people. Sudia brilliantly captures both the master-of-the-universe entitlement of Sir Duff-Gordon and his fragile wife’s determined insistence that she never knew or heard a thing…not even the screaming of those they were leaving to drown. Ronald L. Conner and Xavier Edward King play several additional survivors and lawyers, as well as a clerk that King informs us at the top is a wholly invented character.
Stalling directs all of this at a brisk pace, and the two-hour performance breezes along despite its visually sedentary nature. She also makes the interesting decision to take the viewer behind the scenes, as it were, by allowing us to hear the stage manager’s opening and closing calls and see the actors taking the time to disinfect their stations before someone else uses them. She is aided greatly by Mikhail Fiksel’s inventive and intense sound design, which features often-overlapping telegraphic messages sent to and from Titanic as well as from other ships in the vicinity including the Carpathian, which ended up rescuing those who could be rescued. Fiksel ups the ante with original music that increases the tension in throughout the show.
Titanic (Scenes From the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912) is being presented online until July 14. Tickets are required and may be purchased at courttheatre.org.