Nate Burger

Nate Burger and Alys Shante Dickerson in Court Theatre's "Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)."

I had high expectations for Court Theatre's “Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)” after talking to director Vanessa Stalling for a Herald preview (see May 27 issue). Rather than staging Owen McCafferty's play based on verbatim transcripts from the British investigation into the wreck as a typical courtroom drama, she planned to merge that tragedy and the current pandemic to illuminate the parallels — and the theater-making process.

She wanted to immerse us in Mikhail Fiksel's sound design and score, as for a podcast, but also to enable us appreciate what it's like to watch live theater rather than a film. To that end, the three socially distanced, Plexiglas-surrounded sound booths that dominated Arnel Sancianco's scenic design were simultaneously visible from several angles, and we could choose which to watch. Each booth had headphones, a camera and a microphone through which the performers communicated. The six actors, dressed in non-period-specific costumes designed by Izumi Inaba, were even visible during breaks, as they stretched, cleaned the booths with wipes and used lots of hand sanitizer.

The idea was inspired; the actuality, less so.

I watched the 2-plus hour show on a desktop computer with an 18- or 20-inch screen and found viewing all the camera angles at once distracting. Across the top half of the screen were the three individual booths occupied by the changing array of witnesses and interrogators, though Lord Mersey (Alys Shante Dickerson), the commissioner who presided over the proceedings, was to my right most of the time. The lower half of the screen was split between an overhead view of the stage and a side view, with the empty seats of the auditorium behind it representing, Stalling had told me, both the victims of the shipwreck and COVID-19 plus the absent audience.

Rather than drawing me into the action, the space merely seemed crowded. Keith Parham's lighting design was dark and murky enough to make me feel engulfed by the waters of the North Atlantic, but as far as seeing the actors or their costumes, it was less effective.

Some of the soundscape was evocative, though I confess I wasn't wearing the recommended headphones, so I probably didn't get the full impact. Between the scenes, an audio collage seemed to include urgent wireless transmissions to nearby ships and officials, final telegrams to loved ones and screams of the drowning. An offstage orchestra of six musicians underscored the growing tension.

Keeping the characters straight proved to be challenging at times, partly because the production was static. The actual inquiry involved close to 100 interviews, and McCafferty narrowed the participants down to fifteen or so, but they were all played by half-a-dozen actors, and Stalling cast them without much regard for gender. This worked well at times; for example, when Bri Sudia testified as Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, then traded her jacket for a shawl to become his wife Lady Duff Gordon. But too much of the time I found myself trying to remember the previous person portrayed by an actor, especially since the costume changes and British accents didn't distinguish among social classes as well as they could.

Those distinctions were extremely important. Though no third-class passengers testified — and only questioner W. D. Harbinson (Ronald L. Conner) represented their interests in the play — the ship's staff, officials and first-class passengers took the stand more-or-less in the order of rank, from the lowest up. The name of each was flashed on the screen as he appeared, but few lingered long enough to make an indelible impression, despite harrowing or moving testimony. For instance, Nate Burger began as lookout Reginald Lee, then moved on to steward John Hart and wound up as Joseph Ismay, managing director of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company.

The inquiry began with the Clerk of the Court (Xavier Edward King), a fictional character, listing the opulent provisions on the ship, from 800 bundles of fresh asparagus to five grand pianos and a Turkish bath. It ended with a tally of survivors in each class of service and category of crew, with percentages demonstrating the disproportionate advantages of the privileged. Besides survivors, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton (King) was called as an expert witness because of his knowledge of icebergs.

McCafferty mainly focused on two questions. One was how could the collision with the iceberg have happened, and was the ship's speed a factor? The other: Why weren't more people rescued? The main issues here were a lack of enough lifeboats, the failure to fill them and the probability that third-class passengers were kept — or told to stay — on the lower decks and therefore doomed.

The witnesses tended to testify on one subject or the other. Lookout Lee described the near-invisibility of the capsized iceberg in the haze of a moonless night, while later on Second Officer Charles Lightoller said there was no wind, moon or swell, making it impossible to see anything before it was too late. Shackleton corroborated their accounts. Testimony on the passengers' plight came from, among others, chief baker Charles Jonghin (Andy Nagraj), whose boat had only ten people and who told of tossing deck chairs into the water in the hopes of later finding one to cling to. The Duff Gordons, in a boat with only five total, showed no real remorse for not returning to the sinking ship to save more.

Despite horrifying details and memorable images, the main problem was that the testimony was given in such a matter-of-fact way that the impact dulled. It also was very repetitive, a situation exacerbated by Commissioner Mersey, the Attorney General (Nagraj) and other questioners' penchant for repeating back the testimony to each witness, often going over and over the same point. In fact, they really grilled some of the witnesses.

In the end, I thought that McCafferty's script could have been stronger and Court's production more dynamic. I also would have liked to watch “Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)” on a much larger screen with less clutter and clearer views of the actors' expressions.

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