Oceans Apart

Two sides of Hardcover Theater's bookish drama

For us die-hard landlubbers, the vast expanses of the open seas represent myriad things: stark terror, for starters, followed closely by dread and then, let's say, trepidation. Such a virile and adventure-loving attitude is seconded by The Sea Wolf's Humphrey Van Weyden, literary critic and all-around softie whose San Francisco Bay ferry crashes and leaves him floundering in the water clinging to a piece of driftwood.

Humphrey, played in this Hardcover Theater production by Gregg Bush, thinks he is saved when a boat approaches, but it turns out his troubles have just begun. He's picked up and pressed into servitude on The Ghost, a seal-hunting vessel captained by a very bad and scary man named Wolf Larsen and manned by a variety of escaped convicts, dead-enders, and yar-matey types who share none of Humphrey's refined sensibilities.

The last thing a weary sailor wants to see emerge from the water is an enormous man in uniform with his arms folded
Randy Blanch
The last thing a weary sailor wants to see emerge from the water is an enormous man in uniform with his arms folded

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It's a straight-ahead adventure story, done with gusto. Bush plays Humphrey with wide-eyed shock over his predicament, and ably charts his character's transformation into a man with a more hard-bitten view of things. The linchpin of the evening, though, is Bob Malos as Larsen. Physically imposing and arrogantly charismatic, Malos fills the stage with malice and gleaming fascination with the cruelty all around him.

The play, directed by Bryan Bevell, is an original Hardcover adaptation of Jack London's 1904 serialized novel. London's relationship to big ideas resembled that between a sledgehammer and a piece of ripe fruit, and there's plenty of material about Larsen's philosophy of nihilistic greed and the meaninglessness of the entire human endeavor. Malos redeems what could have been tedious by capturing the vigor of his character and his intellectually savage, almost paternalistic relationship with Humphrey.

The supporting cast captures an alternating sense of despair and homicidal tendencies, with Anthony Brown standing out as the ship's cook, a Cockney sadist and miserable wretch who takes pleasure from his petty torture of Humphrey. While there isn't much in the way of a set, Bevell's cast manages to capture a ship's environs below and above deck by using about every inch of the stage, and the numerous fight scenes keep things from getting too static.

Malos traces Larsen's descent with chilling precision, and by the end of the story--after the storms, mutinies, humiliations, and betrayals--Humphrey is blank-eyed and affect-free. He stares off into his fate with Maud, a sea-stranded poet played with sparkling naiveté by Lindsay Goss. Too bad for him, but good for us. The Sea Wolf is an appealingly breezy meditation on morality in the face of nothingness that doubles as completely entertaining action theater.

 

The Moon Falls into Ruin, the second show on Hardcover Theater's bill, more than compensates for the first's lack of highfalutin verbiage. It's a nonlinear look at the life and poetry of Georg Trakl, a World War I-era Austrian doom merchant.

Severin Oman is Trakl, and in the course of this short show he plays the violin, recites poems, and is beset by three female ghouls in fishnet stockings who usher him to his early death. Trakl was a drug user, a pessimist, and a man scarred by witnessing wartime horrors. His poetry is preoccupied with images of death and decline, mounds of bones, the flaming fall of angels, and the like.

The point being, Trakl got in on the ground floor of the century's terrors, and it did him in. Oman gives us a reasonable interpretation of the poet, though the work is essentially an extended exposition on states of psychic pain and as such paints with a limited pallete. The four-person cast, again directed by Bryan Bevell, meshes well, and gets across a fair amount of subtlety in what could be played for shock instead. In the end we are left with the story of a man who seemed to revel in his own destruction as much as anything life or art had to offer. Perhaps, then, he wouldn't have minded not finding a convert in this listener.

 
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