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The Vast Machine

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Brian Barnhart, Julian Rozzell, Sean Patrick Monahan, Brian J. Carter, and George Demas
Photo by Dixie Sheridan

There is nothing less calming for a seaman than to be trapped aboard a becalmed sailing vessel. Now imagine if that vessel were to be carrying an illicit human cargo, the discovery of which would lead to prosecution and possible hanging of the entire crew. That is the situation in which the men of the Perisher, an illegal slave ship on its way to the slave market in Trinidad, find themselves in the Axis Theatre production of Randy Sharp's compelling new drama, The Vast Machine.

The title refers to the lucrative industry that was dependent on kidnapping or bartering for African men, women, and children and taking them via the notorious Middle Passage to the Caribbean and the North American mainland to be sold as slaves. The play takes place during that slow time of change in the 19th century when the cross-ocean transporting of slaves, though not slavery itself, was banned and "interceptor" ships roamed the Atlantic on the lookout for rogue vessels like the Perisher.

Drawing on the work of historian Marcus Rediker, who served as a consultant during the play's development, Sharp quickly establishes a set of circumstances that will test its protagonists' resourcefulness and challenge their humanity.

The situation on board is getting desperate. There has been not a breath of wind for 15 days, the Perisher having been "vomited into the flat dead calm," as one crew member puts it. The crew is down to five, their party decimated by lethal diseases and by a short-lived insurrection by a group of the Africans, 123 of whom are now chained together in the hold; that is half their original number, death having already claimed the rest. Further complicating matters, what appears to be an interceptor is making its way in their direction

The clanging of chains and the rise and fall of voices are all we experience of the Africans. Instead, the play focuses on the five crew members as they weigh their options: await the approaching boat, release the slaves, or escape in a long boat —an option which also includes scuttling the Perisher and killing all who remain aboard so that no evidence will remain of the capital offense.

Keep an eye on Tenant (Brian Barnhart), who talks the talk of an Abolitionist (the others sneeringly call him a "pamphleteer"); when push comes to shove, will he stand by his convictions? Consider, too, the attitude of the crew's only black member, the one the others call Doctor (Julian Rozzell) and treat as an equal. As a man born in freedom, what does he think of the plight of his African brethren? The others in the cast of this excellent ensemble effort are George Demas as Barleymill, an officer with few apparent leadership skills; Sean Patrick Monahan as Nick, an apprentice seaman who is particularly susceptible to Tenant's talk of freedom and equality; and Brian J. Carter as Charger, an irritating bully but the only one who is willing to follow through with their ultimate plan and pull the others along with him. The production is well served by Chad Yarborough's set design (the grate above the hold is front and center), Steve Fontaine's sound design (we're always aware of what lies beneath that grate), and David Zeffren's dark and moody lighting.

The Vast Machine could have been presented as a heart-thumping, emotionally-charged drama, but the playwright, who also directs, has opted to focus on the moral and ethical issues rather than developing fleshed-out characters, so that each of them represents a particular stance. This approach keeps us thinking about the truly terrible decision that must be made, and, it ought to make us question how we might act in a similar situation and the price we would have to pay regardless of what we decide.

The Vast Machine
Through November 7
Axis Theatre, One Sheridan Square just off 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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