Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler goes overboard at Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Transport.
It is a true tale of epic proportion. More than 4,000 young women were transported from Ireland to Australia in the 1830s and ‘40s to propagate with the thousands of convicts who had already been transported to the unchartered territory of southern Australia. Most of them were convicted of petty or fabricated crimes. They made the journey on rough waters with little comfort and were lucky to survive — many of them didn’t.
Transport (book by Thomas Keneally and music & lyrics by Larry Kirwan) delivers their story as a chamber musical, told through the eyes of four women and a handful of crewmen responsible for their safe delivery. It is a story ripe for the stage, reeking of dramatic tension and epic proportion. But instead, the audience sails into yonder with just a smattering of backstories, and simple melodies and lyrics that leave one yearning for a turn of phrase that doesn’t neatly wrap itself at the end of each line.
Directed by Tony Walton (Tony-, Emmy- and Academy Award-winner for his design work), the musical lacks the creative staging necessary to compensate for its small size. Irish Rep’s awkward theater space (an “L”-shaped black box) doesn’t do the work any favors while a central turntable spins the actresses around gales on the open ocean.
Jessica Grové, Terry Donnelly, Pearl Rhein and Emily Skeggs are tasked with embodying the spirit of a shipful of women—a nearly impossible feat, yet each summons a shining moment. As Polly Cantwell, a young mother forced to travel with her infant child, Ms. Skeggs is most successful at creating this imaginary world and playing the stakes that will keep her alive through the journey. The men onboard each have their own skeletons as well, for nobody on this transport ship is without their secrets. But they are written with broad strokes, and the action chugs along in predictable linear fashion.
While the subject matter may be dramatic, Transport’s creators perhaps needed a compass to steer this theatrical ship in a direction that could resonate to the degree that the material requires. If the intension was to bring these women’s stories “to musical light,” then more texture and theatrical innovation was needed to do so. In the hands of a more daring creative team, perhaps this rocky course could have braved the harsh ocean, but as is, Transport gets lost at sea.
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through April 6, 2014
Take a sneak peek…