The Public Theater examines the ‘SHIPWRECK’ of our nation in a four-part audio drama

In a co-production with DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (where SHIPWRECK made its American debut in February), The Public Theater presents the New York audio version premiere of Anne Washburn’s original stage play, directed and freely adapted by Saheem Ali for 2020. Subtitled “A history play about 2017,” the resonant reiteration takes a look back at that tumultuous and divisive year in the US, in the midst of our present tumultuous and divisive presidential election campaign, controversial Supreme Court appointment, Black Lives Matter movement, and ongoing struggle against systemic racism and white privilege.

The cast. Photo courtesy of The Public Theater.

The searing drama (in a format reminiscent of Richard Nelson’s The Rhinebeck Panorama, which played at The Public for more than a decade of installments of The Apple Family, The Gabriels, and The Michaels), is set at an increasingly uncomfortable and politically-charged dinner party of a group of affluent liberal friends from the city, at the hosts’ historic farmhouse in upstate New York. Caught in a snowstorm with failing electricity and without groceries, the characters’ initially mundane conversations about the house, food, and friendships quickly turn to critical and confrontational discussions of race and politics (which become as combative as those of the politicos they debate) and the realization that maybe “it takes a crisis to reveal the best way forward” and to put an end to apathy, insulation, and inaction.

The radio play features compelling deliveries of the figures, their attitudes, and the playwright’s descriptive, articulate, and often elevated poetic language by the excellent cast of Mia Barron, Brooke Bloom, Phillip James Brannon, Bill Camp, Rob Campbell, Raúl Esparza, Sue Jean Kim, Jenny Jules, Bruce McKenzie, Joe Morton, Jeremy Shamos, and Rich Topol. Each voice is distinctive and recognizable, and every emotion rings true, as they recognize that there is “no calm steady way to discuss this.”

Members of the cast. Photo courtesy of The Public Theater.

Interspersed among the heated disputes are otherworldly imaginings of direct-address comments by a local farmer relaying his personal experiences and surreal scenes of apocalyptic meetings (with dialogue that may be a bit too articulate for the real-life figures in question) between Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and former FBI Director James Comey (written by Washburn during the time following his 2016 testimony before the US Intelligence Committee and his firing). The eerie conjurings are underscored by mysterious sounds and echoes (sound design by Palmer Hefferan and original music composed and performed by The Bengsons).

Washburn’s writing throughout the story is loaded with smart and witty metaphors, references to, and borrowings from, history, theater (including Shakespeare and Euripides), film, the Bible, and the law. For example, the farmhouse where it takes place was built in 1776, was altered over the centuries, and had some structural issues unknown to the new owners, resulting in their need to remodel and to take some parts down – which they plan to do eventually, when they get to it. The passage serves as a telling metaphor for revisiting the founding principles of our country, without delay, and for knowing the importance of “coming forewarned and forearmed” when you do (and when you vote).

While the theme of SHIPWRECK is timely and relevant, it is also indicative of a season flooded with political diatribes, turn-out-the-vote messages, and content that is so pervasive on the news, across social media, and in personal conversations, 24/7, that it loses some of its punch and originality, and risks being yet another example of preaching to the choir. But if you can’t get enough of contemplating and addressing the current socio-political divide, it is an intelligent, well-written, and well-presented addition (with expert audio engineering by UltraViolet Audio) to the burgeoning collection of works by artists who are making their voices heard in the search for ethics and change at this crucial juncture, and using the power and elegance of allusion to overcome any “boringly explicit political message.”

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes total (Part One, 30 minutes; Part Two, 45 minutes; Part Three, 75 minutes). In addition, you can listen to a 30-minute Program Note (recommended before the play) and The Water Cooler (a 45-minute post-play supplemental discussion with the cast, team, and guest experts).

SHIPWRECK at The Public Theater will be available indefinitely and can be accessed for free on the company’s website  and for listening and download on various podcast platforms, including SpotifyGoogle PlayApple PodcastStitcher, and Libsyn. To optimize the experience of the sonic landscape of the play, listening with headphones, earbuds, or an external or Bluetooth speaker is recommended.


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