REVIEWSREVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

The Whaleship Essex

By Joe Forbrichshattered globe theatre

Directed by Lou Contey

Produced by Shattered Globe Theatre

At Theater Wit, Chicago

Epic sea tale unfolds as a thrilling nautical drama

Shattered Globe Theatre, now its its 24th year, has presented an epic saga of a sea story that quickly engages us and keeps us thrilled throughout. From the clipper ship styled set (designed by Ann Davis) to Michael Stanfill’s video projections that view like 19th Century maps to Sarah JoWhite’s period-perfect costumes, The Whaleship Essex unfolds as a sea adventure worthy of being am enchanting  storyteller’s tale.

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Playwright Joe Forbich is at home on stage and at the held of a schooner as he exercises his storytelling skills with The Whaleship Essex. Based on a true story that inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick,  Essex tells the story of a ship and its crew that met a tragic fate on November 20, 1820 when an enraged  sperm whale sank the schooner in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Essex is a memory play narrated by a first-hand survivor, played by Ben Werling. This sweeping epic vividly peopled by an assortment of Quaker sailors bases at Nantucket, Con. in 1819-20 when whale oil was treasured as gold. This drama contains sailing ship terms and accurate sea shanties as we learn how those whaling ships braved a three year journey in search of  the valuable whale oil -a clean-burning smokeless oil that can light up civilization. The entrepreneur-sailors sailed toward riches or nothing as the  pursuit of elusive whale that demanded persistence.

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Directory Lou Contey has assembled a fine cast dedicated to taking us into the harsh world of the whalers. From the  power-happy First Mate,  Chase (the intense Joseph Wiens) to the too-nice a guy ship’s Captain Pollard (Brad Woodard) to the assortment of sailors, young and old, black and white, veteran seamen to novices, the 15 person ensemble deftly took us into the tough world of sailing ships in the early 19th Century. This crew had to both be expert seamen but they also had to be spear hunters to bag a sperm whale. After that daunting task, they had to cut up and boil the blubber into usable oil. The staging and props vividly exposed us to the challenges of being on board a whaler. Sea conditions and the constant meanness of Chase, the First Mate hardened the youngsters quickly.

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When a sperm whale morifs into a dangerous leviathan, the Essex is fatally wounded. The crew is left with few provisions onto three whaleboats. Their survival demands deciding how to use the winds to navigate the 2,000 miles or so to the nearest land.  The story becomes an adventure of survival at sea as the vastness of the Pacific becomes their enemy. The physical and moral dilemmas suffered by the crews of each boat reflected the strength and beliefs of each character. These scenes were marvelously performed as we quietly cheer for our favorite players to survive.

We see the irony of the hunters becoming the hunted and the profit-seekers losing everything in pursuit of wealth. The acting was terrific especially from Joesph Wiens, Jon Stutzman, Angie Shriner and Drew Schad.  Ben Werling needs to project more as the narrator. You’d be hard pressed to see a finder ensemble that this dedicated cast.

The Whaleship Essex is a fine adventure saga that feeds out never-ending love of sea stories. I see now how Melville was inspired to create Moby-Dick from tales like the Essex’s story. This show is worth seeing.


Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: September 3, 2014

For more info checkout The Whaleship Essex page at

At Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL, call 773-975-8150,, tickets $30, under 30 – $20, students $15, seniors $25, industry Thursdays at $15, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes, through October 11, 2014

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