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Theatre in Review: Transport (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Emily Skeggs, Pearl Rhein, Edward Watts, and Sean Gormley. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In the 1830s and '40s, approximately 40,000 "undesirables," convicted of minor crimes when they weren't innocent victims of trumped-up allegations, were transported from Ireland to the penal colony of Australia; many of them were women intended as prospective wives for the colony's male prisoners. This staggering injustice -- one could be arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, uprooted forever, and made to begin life on the other side of the globe -- and its attendant miseries have been documented by the distinguished novelist and historian Thomas Keneally -- author of Schindler's List, among others -- in his 1998 book The Great Shame.

If such material is going to be made into musical theatre, it would seem to require expert hands; however, Keneally has gone ahead and done it, working with the songwriter Larry Kirwan. Sadly, Keneally shows little aptitude for the task he has assigned himself, and I'm sorry to report that, even with a brief running time of 90 minutes plus intermission, Transport proves to be a long-haul voyage indeed.

Transport focuses on the fate of four young women on one of these ships in 1838, but Keneally has been unable to make them compelling or even very distinct characters. Instead, they are thinly conceived vessels of suffering who rage against their collective fate in song after song. They also sing endlessly about their lost home in Ireland, and yet we hear little or nothing about their lives there. One of them, Maggie, is apparently a seer, prone to howling out visions of Ireland ravaged by the potato famine, which is about to happen. ("For God's sake, take this harpy away from me," shouts the ship's stentorian captain, speaking for the audience as well as himself.) There is also Bride, who is proud; Kate, who has "a raging heart;" and Polly, a Protestant whose misery is doubled at finding herself among Catholic prisoners and who clutches an infant to her breast. Aside from an abortive plot by Kate to seize the ship, a risible attempt that is thwarted before the intermission, there is no storyline, just a jumble of incidents designed to illustrate the prisoners' multitudinous sorrows.

Despite the appalling conditions on board the ship, there is a surprising amount of romance. You'd think that the confinement, the flogging, the unsanitary conditions, and the raging storms might put a damper on things, but you would be wrong. For example, Bride is courted by Surgeon Delamare, the ship's doctor, who wouldn't mind starting life over in Australia with her. The gulf in their social stations leads to lots of brooding, with them striking operatic poses and singing ballads with titles like "The Price of Love." Kate also sets her cap for Hennessy, an Irish member of the crew, first as a co-conspirator in her rebellion plot and later as husband material.

There are other oddities, as well, including a number where the ladies lift their skirts and kick up their heels, largely because it is Act II and it's time for a change of pace -- the spirited choreography is by Barry McNabb -- and acres of wooden dialogue like, "We must make ready for a cruel voyage," or "Love is a fragile substitute for duty, Captain!" Kirwan's songs, which occupy a halfway place between Irish folk tunes and Frank Wildhorn-style power ballads, are largely indistinguishable from one another. In any case, the numbers tend to restate the women's situation rather than working to illuminate their characters or advance the plot.

Under Tony Walton's direction, the cast members perform with all due intensity, even if they have little of value to work with. As Bride and Delamare, Pearl Rhein and Edward Watts are trapped in cardboard lover roles; the libretto never really takes the time to explain what they see in each other. The same is true of Jessica Grové as Kate and Patrick Cummings as Hennessy. Kate's character -- a murderous rebel who is brutally flogged yet ever-ready to join in the dance numbers -- makes no sense. Cummings, blessed with the best voice in the cast, makes the most of his musical moments.

As a set designer, Walton, and his lighting designers Richard Pilbrow and Michael Gottlieb, long ago mastered the difficult Irish Repertory space. The set, dominated by a turntable with a low-rise second level, plus a captain's deck downstage right and a kind of crow's nest downstage left, is a sensible layout, suitable for various locations, and it contains some lovely, painterly touches. The lighting artfully takes us from scene to scene, creating some quietly stunning tableaux. When the ship is at sea, a sail drops in to serve as a surface for projections, by Yana Biryukova, which illustrate the atmospheric conditions of the voyage. Linda Fisher's costumes -- prison rags for the ladies and naval uniforms for the men -- feel authentic. Carl Casella's sound design includes a variety of effects, including seagulls, waves, and a vividly realized storm.

By the time the ship docks in Sydney, Transport feels like a voyage to nowhere, a powerful story undermined by poor storytelling and glossed over with a veneer of musical theatre cliches. (Even in more skilled hands, it might come off as a kind of seagoing Les Misérables.) If the show proves anything, it is that a skill for prose fiction or historical narrative may not necessarily be helpful in trying to tell a story using the specific tools of musical theatre. That is a job for experienced professionals.--David Barbour

(24 February 2014)

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