Where Catalpa scores is in its scenes that also plug into our passion for films. When Michael Cassady, as the screenwriter, describes a character's entrance into the film as a tight shot on his shoe as he steps out of a carriage and into a puddle, we instantly see the scene in our own minds. When his hand creates a seagull floating on the breeze, we envision not only the gull, but the sky and ocean behind him, because we know that shot. The genius in Donal O'Kelly's writing is how brilliantly evocative it is with a minimum of expression. Cassady need only say, "shadows on a glip-glop sea," and you're right there watching it on a wide screen. O'Kelly gives us a film script that uses a familiar visual vocabulary, and it resonates with our moviegoing memories. Two days after seeing this play, I can still envision scenes from the movie I never saw.
The problem with Catalpa the play is that The Catalpa the unmade movie isn't that good. The screenplay is based on a true story: the 1875 voyage of the American whaling ship Catalpa, which engaged in a daring attempt to rescue six Irish prisoners from penal servitude in Western Australia. The film-within-a-play focuses on the ship's captain George Anthony, a former whaler who had (according to the screenplay, at least) given up his life on the sea to marry and lead a sedate, sober life on land. The story certainly has all of the elements necessary for an Academy Award nomination: the intelligent and handsome leading man, the lovely wife who begs him not to go, the disapproving father-in-law who offers a chance at financial security, the mysterious stranger, tearful partings, the impossible mission, the loyal crew, chases on the high seas, rumblings of sedition below-decks, and so forth.
But our screenwriter has also populated it with some less-than-desirable elements: specifically, two moments from his past which keep haunting Captain Anthony through his entire voyage. Both are very poorly written (the better of the two is his mother-in-law telling him not to go to sea again because his wife "loves you . . . dangerously!") These two lines keep returning to Captain Anthony in flashbacks, and they are both so unbelievably corny, they make it difficult for us to fall completely under the spell of the film being enacted for us.
And yet, there is a value to this cheesiness. Cassady performs these lines, as he performs everything in the screenplay, with absolute commitment. Because he isn't just acting out the film of The Catalpa, he is playing the role of The Catalpa's screenwriter, and he is sharing with us that screenwriter's creation. Cassady plays a man absolutely enamored of his work, and he reads every line, even the bad ones, with the passion the writer imagines they engender.
The result is that Catalpa is not entirely the engrossing journey through a wonderful unfilmed screenplay that you might expect. Instead, it is an interesting journey into the artistic mind and that mind's total commitment to its creation.
Catalpa runs through April 9 at the Alliance Repertory Company in Burbank. Tickets available through www.tix.com.
Alliance Repertory Company presents Catalpa. Written by Donal O'Kelly. Performed by Michael Cassady. Staged by Spencer Griffin. Based on on the original direction by Kristin Horton. Lighting design by Brent Beath; Sound design by Kristin Horton. Board operators: Chad Chaney, Crystal Cartwright. Promotional materials designed by Chris Stangl. Produced by David Elzer, Spencer Griffin, Adam Legg, and Greg Winter. Artistic Director: Kristen Cloke.
Photo: Scott Campbell