While his "Sea Plays" launched Eugene O'Neill's career, the one-act works are seldom performed in America these days.
While his “Sea Plays” launched Eugene O’Neill’s career, the one-act works are seldom performed in America these days. That makes them an obvious choice for the Goodman Theater’s festival focusing on the playwright’s early work. Curator and Goodman a.d. Robert Falls could not have done better than bringing in this superb, oddball ensemble from Sao Paolo, Brazil, Companhia Triptal. The troupe manages a remarkable feat, reminding us exactly how these plays — initially presented by the famed Provincetown Players in the early part of the last century — caused a sensation in the first place.Led by director Andre Garolli, Companhia Triptal has been specializing in the “Sea Plays” for about five years, and their dedication has paid off. Creating a male universe ripe both with suspicion and camaraderie, these are robust little works — running only about an hour each even in these slightly extended versions. Simple and yet deeply authentic, highly emotional and yet very masculine, the plays have been presented in Portuguese over three consecutive weeks as part of the festival, with English supertitles. It’s easy to see why Companhia Triptal took to these plays. The company comes across as a convincing collection of outcasts, a gruff group of guy’s guys, some with overgrown hair, others with overgrown bodies. They can growl at each other like dogs or seem on the verge, in one of Garolli’s outside-the-text, imagistic montages, of dancing (not gracefully, mind you), as in their highly choreographed and intense depiction of life on a ship at the start of “Bound East for Cardiff,” O’Neill’s first produced play. Garolli proves a master at setting a scene and forming a genuine atmosphere, and he does it uniquely with each piece. In “Cardiff,” the director follows the opening sequence on the deck of the ship by bringing the audience first onto the stage, where they witness the fall of a sailor, and then again up the stairs into the theater’s recesses — the scene shop serves as the ship’s dank living quarters. It may be one movement too many, but it certainly works to provide a feeling of class consciousness and male camaraderie within this sort of isolated life, so essential to O’Neill’s passionate take on the fallen sailor’s dying moments and the friend who cares for him. In “The Long Voyage Home,” Garolli creates a carnivalesque freak show and then repeats the story’s climactic scene — a sailor who has finally stopped drinking and saved enough money to return home ends up getting duped and drugged to serve on a vessel so awful it has to kidnap its crew. But the best of the lot is “In the Zone.” While there’s a powerful image at the start — the men entangled under a table in a manner resembling a jigsaw puzzle of body parts — Garolli stays fully focused on the relationships and O’Neill’s compelling story of paranoia gone rampant. The show captures both the intense claustrophobia that creates suspicion among the men and the driving momentum of this cringe-inducing story when one of the sailors is accused of being a spy. The shows incorporate a lot of fog and extraordinarily effective lighting and sound, but these remain simple, bare-essentials productions focused on the actors. They are a perfect fit for Chicago, which has its own reputation for regularly producing large ensemble American dramas, but they unquestionably deserve further exposure.