Brilliant Ensemble Work in
Female Transport's first premiere was at Half Moon Company in London in 1973; since that date, many colleges and universities in the U.K. and the U.S. have presented this historical piece about a time when women were mere chattels and taught to suspect each other and compete for male approval in a society that was dominated by men.
The one hour, 45 minute drama is a tough, realistic and detailed account of the hardships endured by six females whose crimes were purse-cutting, prostitution and "false pretenses." Their sentences were long stretches of penal servitude in the new colonies in Australia. They were transported in British war ships that were badly overcrowded since most of the navy's fleet was occupied with the war with the American colonies. The ships were captained by young inexperienced British officers and sergeants who were looking for extra profit through the transportation.
Female Transport opens with the women entering a dank and dark cell in the hold of the ship. This will be their home for the long and arduous six-month journey around Cape Hope to Sydney. They will have to endure worm-ridden food, putrid water and rats. The cruel sergeant (Steven Anthony Jones) will be their caretaker, helped by a 16-year-old first mate Tommy (Jomar Tagatac).
The women must overstress their individuality, and they are ferociously independent of men and each other. They all have betrayed someone in the past to gain their independence. Winnie (Colleen Harris) is designated as the "matron" of the group against her will, and she becomes the mother figure of the group. Nance (Gwynee Flanagan), an independent rebel against the authority of the men, says, "There's no 'ope in 'ere less we all stick together." During the trip's progress we see cutting exchanges and taunting among the women. We see how one goes from being a frightened doe to being completely mad.
Slowly, we see a solidarity rise among the women. Nance, who has endured floggings and tortures for her defiance, earns the respect of the five other women. When the hatch door of the ship opens upon landing in Sydney at the end of their trip, and harsh sunlight comes streaming in, these convicts are different women.
Gwynne Flanagan, Colleen Harris, Anna Olivia Moore, Sarayu Rao and Allison Jean White play these convicts not as caricatures but as real persons. The cockney accents are flawless, and when they get angry or even slightly mad, they do not overstep the traits that could make them cartoonish. These are great actresses in the making. They are third year graduating students and will be making the rounds in New York and other cities for future roles in theatre. All are excellent.
A.C.T. core actor Steven Anthony Jones (Scrooge in Christmas Carol plus other great A.C.T. roles) plays the cruel Sarge. Jones does not overplay the cruelty of the sergeant, and there is a certain amount of humanity in the performance. Jomar Tagatac (young Scrooge in A Christmas Carol) is excellent as the na´ve first mate who becomes a man before the ship arrives in Sydney harbor. His transformation and his indecision about whose side he is on is beautifully accomplished by his acting. He is also a third year student of the Master of Fine Arts Program.
Peter Allen Stone plays the surgeon who believes in humane treatment of the girls but also has a dark side to his personality. (Stone had trouble with the accent on opening night at the beginning of the play when explaining that these girls were being transported for petty criminal acts. His speech patterns were rushed and this made it most difficult, along with the accent, to tell what he was saying. I understand this will be cleared up by the director.) Reid Morgan in the small role of the captain seems a bit too young to be the captain of the British man o' war, but as he explains, all of the older captains are out fighting the Americans in the war. He has a Northern English accent that is very good. All of the male actors, with the exception of Steven Anthony Jones, are third year students of the program.
Director Anne Kauffman (The Typographer's Dream at Encore and The Loyal Opposition at New York Theatre Workshop) does impressive work on this production. She has made what could have been over the top performances into presentations of real human beings. The scenic and lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols is amazing. He makes the stage look like the hold of a British frigate, with its prison like structure. With the Zeum Theatre being small, you are actually almost in the hold of the ship, giving a feeling of imprisonment. It is a strange sensation.
Female Transport will play in Repertory with Lilies through April 3rd at the Zeum Theatre, Yerba Buena Gardens (Fourth and Howard) San Francisco. Tickets are available by calling the A.C.T. box office at 415-749-2228 or by visiting www.act-sf.org.