Wreck in effect
The Plagiarists mine historic accounts of an epic disaster.
The cast of characters of The Wreck of the Medusa, the new work by the Plagiarists that opens this week at Angel Island, unfurls like a biblical genealogy. Forty-six strong, they originate over two continents and both sides of the English Channel; some are based on actual historical people, others on the historically made-up. They’ll be portrayed by 11 actors, each taking on at least three roles.
This grandiosity seems appropriate for a treatment of the most famous shipwreck pre-Titanic, one that’s inspired artworks both highbrow and low. Surprisingly, it’s not the 1816 wreck of the Senegal-bound French ship off the coast of Mauritania—in which all but 15 of 400 passengers perished—that forms the body of Medusa. Nor is it the harrowing life-raft escape, which saw almost 90 percent of its passengers dead after two hellish weeks adrift. Rather, the play aims its focus on the survivors’ attempts to tell their story, those who tried to silence them, and the story’s reverberations on stage, in print and on canvas ever since.
For playwright and Plagiarists cofounder Greg Peters, the fallout of the disaster is emblematic of what happens when “idiots are in charge.” He says that the earliest drafts of the piece, created with Ian Miller in 2007, were influenced by America’s response to Hurricane Katrina. As the piece took form over the intervening years, including a stint with the DCA’s Incubator Series and workshopping in the Plagiarists’ popular monthly Salons at the Black Rock Pub, the piece has strayed from its explicitly political roots and delved deeper into its complex and conflicting source material.
The Plagiarists, as their name suggests, have a complicated relationship with sources. Founded in 2007 as a group of writers-who-act and actors-who-write, the troupe was incited by Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” to create theater that’s never coy about its inspirations. “When you feel like you have the license, the responsibility, to take something and do whatever you want with it, you create a new vocabulary from something that is preexisting,” Miller says.
Fittingly, then, Medusa—borne from a book on famous shipwrecks that Miller got for Christmas—draws from dozens of published accounts of the wreck’s survivors, almost all of whom appear in the play. The play lifts dialogue directly from a jingoistic mid-1800s British musical melodrama about the disaster and boasts staging inspired by one of the most famous paintings of the 19th century, Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. On top of all of this, montage projections show shadowy footage from old nautical films.
If this seems like sensory overload, director Jack Tamburri is undaunted. “There’s a maximalism to the play that I always understood was going to be part of our vocabulary because the story demands it,” he says. And the inclusive tapestry highlights a central theme: “the attempt after attempt to recount what happened,” Tamburri says. “It’s a story of attempts, and as ours is one in a history of artworks to depict the event, it’s also another attempt in a series of attempts.”
For James Dunn, a Plagiarists cofounder who portrays the young Géricault about to paint his masterpiece, the disparate points of view allow for a strong sense of empathy for everyone touched by the tragedy. “A play is nothing compared to the event,” he admits, paraphrasing one of his lines, “but the act of relating can be powerful, and that’s what we’re trying to show. You can gain an empathetic perspective that maybe you didn’t have before.”
Medusa runs aground Thursday 8.