4 Cents Review – When 2 reviewers each give their 2 cents.
Today it takes both Tortora-Lees (Karen and Stephen) to give The Land Whale Murders the consideration it deserves.
For those of you who have already had the opportunity to experience a play by writer Jonathan A. Goldberg (such as The Luck of the Ibis) you’ll no doubt know what I mean when I say that it’s as if Goldberg lets both hands write two plays independently of each other simultaneously – one fully right brain, the other fully left – and then allows his subconscious to stitch them together till it all makes sense. This is his gift – this is where he succeeds when others fail. And this is why The Land Whale Murders is both difficult to describe, yet impossible to forget.
Boiled down to its essence The Land Whale Murders is a murder mystery set in the late 1890s in New York’s gritty underbelly. It is a unique time – where we can almost see the modern world – yet still can feel the odd quirks of the old fashioned time preceding it. So, while this is a coming of age story for the characters, it is also one for the country, as the United States moves from its adolescence into the beginning of the modern age.
But even more importantly The Land Whale Murders is a grand majestic romp full of comedic bits that take those odd facets of the Gilded Age and serve them up in a wacky steam punk adventure that turns out to be quite historically accurate. So, as comical as it may sound as a plot line – strap in, New Yorkers, for this is your city in its youth: whale oil was having its last gasps as a precious commodity while crude oil was becoming the new industrial force in the world, and Theodore Roosevelt was New York’s police commissioner. An odd group of concerned citizens (the Amercian Acclimatization Society) really did release All the Birds of Shakespeare’s Plays into Central Park. Naturalists, thrilling for adventure and calling for change, abounded throughout the period. So, nutty as it seems, the old adage rings true – you can’t make this stuff up.
What you can do, however, if you’re a playwright in search of a whale of a tale, is mix in some Victorian naturalists who like to be known as the Four Elementals – murder one of them in the Prologue – and set the remaining 3 off and running in this crazy quilt of a city. The audience is then left to watch what happens as an adventuring botanist (Angus Troup played by Amy Landon), a clumsy but well-meaning ornithologist (Eugene Neddly played by Carl Howell), and a fiery poetess (Maryanne Blud, played by Jennifer Joan Thompson) , try to solve the murder of a passionate oceanographer (Hiram Blud, played by Robert Michael McClure) while simultaneously trying to save the citizens of New York from the threat of a land whale. They’re in a dead heat with a cold hearted female pirate – Pirate Penny – who is supported by a roving gang of eye-patch wearing goons (A bunch of former whalers and fishermen who now practice land piracy. You recognize them because they all wear eye patches . . . whether they need them or not!) who “reckon good and evil is more a social construct”. On top of all this, the Remaining Elementals must deal with the daily ins and outs of navigating their relationships with each other.
These Three Elementals hide their eyebrow-raising predilections (oh, hell no – tell me she’s not kissing a . . . ), crack their one liners, and try not to get clobbered by The Big Stick (aka Teddy Roosevelt, played by Richard Hollman). But come on, this group once banded together and fought a mummy (a mummy!) – do you think a whale oil tycoon like Henry B. Lubbins III (played by Nathaniel Kent) poses such a problem? Even when he says – about America adopting petroleum as an energy source – “You sound like that fool Rockefeller. America runs on whale juice. Now and forever.” No. No, he does not. In fact, Henry B. Lubbins turns out to be . . . well . . . otherwise octopied. (You read that right. Octopus – Octopied).
Director Tom Ridgely clearly understands Goldberg’s madcap vision and brings it to life stunningly. He uses fight choreographer Rod Kinter to full advantage throughout; if you’re a fan of Kinter’s brilliantly inventive fights (and I am) you’ll thrill each time the music swells around another great fracas of stage combat.
While I’m not a fan of comparing one medium to another in order to give certain aspects a deeper sense of validity I still must say that there is something very cinematic about The Land Whale Murders – specifically when it comes to the original music (by John Balicanta) and overall sound design (by M. L. Dogg) which works hand in hand with Greg Goff’s dramatic lighting design. Underscoring scenes and transitions, these elements often adds a note of subtle humor, allowing a broadly acted scene to come off stronger and more complete. Similarly, set design Jason Simms keeps the scenery to a minimum but pulls out the best tricks for the times they’ll pack the biggest punch. And, if you’re a fan of steam punk you’ll adore the costumes Deanna Frieman created.
Perfectly paced, beautifully staged, brilliantly acted – The Land Whale Murders will surprise you, delight you, and leave you fully entertained. You’ll also never look at a ficus, an octopus or a big stick in quite the same way again.
~~~SHELBY COMPANY PRESENTS THE LAND WHALE MURDERS Written by Jonathan A. Goldberg Directed by Tom Ridgely .
Running until December 18th Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm . Theatre 3 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor Tickets are $18 / $15 for Students, Seniors Click Here for tickets or call 1-800-838-3006