Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Nov. 15, 2002
Billy Budd: At Sea in a War
Dougherty Arts Center, through Nov. 23
Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min
Good versus evil. Is there a more timeless theme in literature? On some level, it's played out in every story imaginable, and it is the essence of this Herman Melville tale, adapted for the stage by Louis O. Coxe and Robert Chapman. Mainline Theater Project, a new Austin theatre company, have chosen to stage a script so elemental as to be almost mythical, and yet Billy Budd could not be more timely and relevant right now, for it concerns itself not just with the question of humankind's basic nature, but with what occurs when men are thrust into a most peculiarly human undertaking: war.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it takes place in the late 18th century aboard the H.M.S. Indomitable, putting to sea to fight the French. Billy Budd is the newest, and seemingly the youngest, man on board, green as a blade of grass, blond-haired, blue-eyed, handsome, whose good looks and stammer attract the attention of the brutal and totally evil master-at-arms, Claggart. When Claggart accuses Billy of mutiny before the intellectual and morally solid Captain Vere, Billy, unable to muster the words to defend himself against the totally false charge, kills Claggart with a single blow, and Vere must then decide whether to follow his heart or follow the rules of war.
Director Jeremy Sexton is fortunate to have found actors who embody his characters so thoroughly. With his silvery hair, well-trimmed beard, and upright, commanding presence, Garry Peters' Vere is the personification of a naval commanding officer. The same can be said of Preston Jones, who is not just handsome, but preternaturally beautiful as the young and innocent sailor Billy. Sexton has cast the other roles perfectly as well -- the sailors are a dirty, raunchy, obviously maltreated bunch of pirates, and the officers are well-dressed, well-spoken, and, as a whole, well-fed.
While perfect casting is the hallmark of this effort, the production as a whole falls flat. The reasons for this are myriad, and they begin and end with the choices that Sexton makes and allows his actors and designers to make. The acoustics in the Dougherty Arts Center space are notoriously horrible, but rather than playing scenes behind the proscenium, where voices are easily heard and, as importantly, easily understood, Sexton pushes almost everything up onto the apron of the stage and out into the echoing auditorium. The staging has a random feeling, and some of the actors base their characters on little more than pacing or shifting in place, never really trusting the power of the text. While the play is set in wartime Britain, and Sexton has asked his actors to attempt various dialects, the dialect work is slipshod and unconvincing and, like the staging, obscures rather than enhances the story. Sexton co-designed the set with R. Bryan Peterson, and while its dangling ropes and numerous spars and masts evoke place quite effectively, it is an unwieldy and, much worse, dangerous contraption. While Mainline should be commended for choosing such a challenging, difficult, and, most especially, relevant script while building a future audience, it would serve itself well to choose more easily approachable material.