Shipwreck is set in 2017, in the early times of Trump’s America. Seven New Yorkers spend their weekend in a newly restored farmhouse upstate, rendered foodless and boozeless by a snowstorm. With nothing better to do, they spend all their time in lengthy considerations about politics, obsessing about the new president and wondering how the country could have arrived at such a state. In the past, the former owner of the farm describes the process of adopting a Kenyan baby. Mark, this adopted son, grows from childhood to adulthood throughout the piece, sharing his experiences and anxieties. Meanwhile, the president has hypothetical conversations with allies and rivals.
The main ensemble is a lot of white, highly-educated Americans. Their healthy anticipation for a relaxed weekend crumbles as plans start to go wrong, and the conversation becomes increasingly pessimistic as hours and tiredness accumulate. The topic is invariably political, with some interesting deviations to consider about art, taste and wealth. Anne Washburn effectively explores common liberal assumptions, questioning them in light of the recent election outcome, and cleverly directing them at an audience who most likely aligns with the characters in opposing Trump’s views. This way, a play that could superficially seem heavily biased becomes a surprisingly neutral meditation… Individual personality traits are well delineated, even though most characters fit a stereotypical category: the two hippies, the social media activist, the rich lawyer, the tired woman… Despite the superb, realistic performances from an all-star cast, the scenes felt sometimes too long and too still, focusing too often on the same ideas.
Seemingly disconnected is the story of the black-adopted-by-whites boy, brought to life by the incredible Fisayo Akinade. Recurring monologues paint a lively portrait of his own mind as he imagines how different life would have been if he had been brought from his homeland two centuries ago, to grow up as a slave. As he grows up, his perspective on the topic changes, shaped by maturity and political context, and what started as a child’s play becomes a father’s anxiety on how to tell his daughter about such a dark part of history. The wildest and most darkly-comical scenes are those that feature Mr. President himself. Elliot Cowan takes on the herculean task of playing the role, both in a regular suit and in a gold-spray-Roman-emperor-Mayan-sun-god costume, with exceptional merit. Presenting two “alternative history” meetings, including a Trump vs Bush fist fight and a rave of flashing political icons, these daring escapades are a welcome relief from reality, packed with metatheatrical elements. Both silly and profoundly unsettling, they satirize the inner works of a system that we grew (perhaps) too used to. However, and once again, the timing is non-ideal, and I was left wondering “it isn’t over yet!?” more than once.
From a technical point of view, the show is flawless. Everything, from the design of the sets to the lighting and the sound effects, amplifies the meaning and directionality of the play. Clever light effects and prop stunts illustrate scene changes, set up the tone of the dialogue and emphasize the meaning of the text. There is a sense of sober equilibrium throughout: all resources are used precisely when, and only when, they are most meaningful.
Overall, Shipwreck is a brilliant performance of not so brilliant play. The fact that the real events are set so recently may be its undoing. Afterall, as one of the characters puts it, “art needs time and space, we can all agree on that”.