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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Who Rowed Across Oceans: A new work by Danielle Littman

Or: “Don’t hate the sea from the shore/the ocean was here long before...”*

“How does a life get led?” That, for me, is the question; sought after in every story, every play, every contemplative hour. It’s a question that you can hunt down to a thousand places, ask a thousand different times, and the answers will surprise you every time.

One such answer comes from Danielle Littman and her Lost Compass Collective, who proffers for consideration the story of John Fairfax, adventurer. In her fluid and ornately simple production (directed by Jeremy Ohringer) she spools out the destiny of Fairfax (Will Kiley) as it twined about and snagged on the lives of lovers and friends (Amelia Hefferon) pushed at and pulled back to his mother (Mandy Modic), was plucked and tautened by creatures of power (Kelly Able) and shared its strength with his companion Sylvia Cook (Claire Saxe). We follow Fairfax as he lived in jungles, tempted suicide by Jaguar, had affairs with celestial bodies, struggled to outrace the shadows of his past, and rowed across oceans, driven by, at lowest ebb, an angst that could carve canyons, and at highest flow a determination to shake life till the coins spilled from its pockets.

Littman excels at a type of “mosaic” storytelling, growing more popular amongst new playwrights but rarely mastered with such precision, focusing more on the spirit of the action or individual than the precise history of the thing. She tells not so much the story of Fairfax but his drive, shaped by her chorus of fates and influences, as he learns to neither love nor fight but ride nature, both his own and the one that beckoned to him all his life. Though certain more ridged creation stories (particularly regarding his shadowy father and his mother) would give the piece more support, and though the ending does somewhat evaporate, leaving one spooked and reverent but expectant of more, it gets its point across and takes more interest in the “why” than the “how”. With poetic phrasings of simple truths, mantras with the solid weight of prayer wheels, surging songs (worded and, more powerfully, wordless) that charge the soul with awe, and brilliantly luminous laugh lines that shoot through the work like veins of silver, Littman has woven herself and her narrative voice into the very warp and woof of the story; even more transparently than usual, one sees the players and stagers all dancing to the lilting chanty that she calls.

Not to say these performers are merely puppets, not by a long chalk. Each slips and wriggles through Ohringer’s stylistic staging, almost hellenic in its emphasis on human form and human stamina, with oodles of grace. And all carry the the fire of Fairfax’s passion and anguish that flared up at a nonsensical world (perhaps not so different from the fires licking away at their own heart of hearts). Abel does a particularly imperious job of holding up the mirror to Riley’s boiling, a cold reflection as she slinks her way through a variety of foes for Fairfax to face: part antagonist, part smug creator.

Her frequent asides to us, Iago-like in their captivating chill, add an edge to the humor of the play, a sense of their is more at stake here than an idea or a man bent on vitality. Her opposite number, Hefferon, plays like a sky-reaching fountain, balancing at its peak a crystal orb; that is to say she gushes out outlandishment but keeping balanced a beautiful adeptness for detail. It’s one thing to see her hop on a chair/mountaintop as John’s first lady-love and shout to the heavens, “World! We are doing love!” and quite another to see her, as a different character, carry out a miniature, microsecond, but perfectly executed triple-take when John offhandedly tosses out, “I once had a year long relationship with the planet venus” (it makes sense in context, see the show). Saxe’s Sylvia is a perfect lovingly rendered picture of a human woman, who reflects back at us our own desire for adventure and wonder if the life we’re leading is as resounding as it should be. Quite part from Fairfax’s epic agonies and ecstasies, Sylvia zings in her “third person” asides inviting us to laugh or cringe along with her. Where she is daunted we down an extra dram of disquiet and where she laughs we feel ourselves buoyed up. Saxe touches us as a storyteller, laying out her vulnerability and determination to see her adventure through, a mirror shard imbedded in the mosaic.

Farifax’s odyssey to find a way of living in the world, of bringing order to chaos, and meaning to struggle has hit a deep note with this company. Littman makes a bell of her good name on its peal and her players swing, themselves suspended, upon the rope; becoming us all to come and hear this answer to the eternal question, and wonder how we might live our lives one drop more fully.

*Subtitle lifted from the chorus of “Just like the sea” by the Pig Pen Theatre Company, who told the mother-shadow of this tale.

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