It may not always make sense, but it’s hard to hold a grudge against “The Voyage of the Carcass.” Playwright Dan O’Brien cares so deeply about his subjects — the value of art, the cost of making it — that his passion engages even when his arguments confuse. Plus, this play displays an imagination that ought to be nurtured. It can be celebrated as the promise of things to come.
O’Brien’s most interesting idea is also his undoing. He aims to write two interlocking pieces. One is a manic clown show about an early 20th century sea captain who wants to sail his ship, the Carcass, to the North Pole. The other’s about the people creating that clown show, sequestered in a room as they tape-record their rehearsals and their personal arguments during breaks.
They’re meant to be related, these artists and buffoons. Both groups live for some hazy goal, be it the pole or artistic fulfillment, and both hurt each other as they strive for it. Captain Bane (Dan Fogler) and his chaplain Kane (Kelly Hutchinson) attack each other with novelty props as they sit stranded in the ice; married actors Bill and Helen (Fogler and Hutchinson again) watch their relationship freeze as they try to create their show.
Cast has the skill to make each of their characters distinct. A Tony winner for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Fogler especially impresses with a perf so rich in details that it appears spontaneous and unrehearsed. Bane, saddled with red nose and enormous foam rear end, has devolved into pure id while languishing on the Carcass, and Fogler invests his mania with glee. In a child’s voice he might insist he sees a “haunted umbrella,” only to fence with it a moment later.
Just as easily, thesp drops the shtick and simmers with naturalistic anger or remorse. He actually transcends the script as Bill, finding multiple approaches for each of the man’s lengthy, repetitive tirades about the futility of artistic dreams or making women happy.
As Israel, the Carcass’ shy bosun, and Dan, the not accidentally named playwright in the “real world,” Noah Bean balances Fogler’s vigor with calm. His reserve often carries ache, as in a beautiful scene where Israel has a revelation outside the ship. Engulfed in paper snowflakes that blow throughout the theater, his reverential whisper and disciple’s look of awe give enormous power to his discovery of something beautiful at the top of the world.
It’s a scene that could end a play, but O’Brien keeps going. He tries to meld his halves into one, so that the Carcass’ crew absorbs their counterparts and their oversized environment becomes a massive symbol for what was happening in the rehearsals. But it’s a mistake to assume the clowns can take on so much new meaning. Previously, O’Brien leaves the ties between fool and human superficial, letting each plot develop with its own logic and language. It therefore feels awkward to graft broad slapstick onto sensitive questions about art and love.
The uneasy marriage also muddies up the metaphors, asking us to interpret everything for not one but two sets of characters. One could go mad trying to decipher whether the Carcass represents the same thing to Bill as it does to Bane, or if the snow means the birth of art, the death of art or both. The writing is never clear enough to let one new reality trump the memory of the previous two.
This is not to suggest O’Brien should spoon-feed us meaning, but even the most mysterious symbols need some kind of consistency. Otherwise, they become too obtuse to resonate, and the production’s laudable intentions get lost.