by JK Clarke
The 1620 voyage by members of the Separatists (a Puritan sect) on the Mayflower to what is now New England was one of the most daring ventures ever. The travelers—who numbered approximately 105 (plus an estimated 30 crew members), were religious refugees, seeking a place to practice their faith unencumbered and without facing imprisonment or execution—had relatively no seafaring or wilderness exploration experience whatsoever. That half survived through the first year should be considered, rather than the failure it looks like on paper, nothing short of miraculous. That they established the first permanent settlement in what would become The United States, is astonishing. It could’ve gone another way (like similar attempts did in places like the lost colony of Roanoke), and that’s the subject explored in Randy Sharp’s Strangers in the World, now playing through April 6 at the Axis Theatre in the West Village.
Strangers in the World should not be confused with any actual events or characteristics surrounding the Mayflower voyage or the subsequent settlement at Plymouth. For that, one should consult Nathaniel Philbrick’s extraordinary Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (2006). Instead, Strangers in the World is an examination of the “worst case scenarios” imaginable for settlements in the far off, and certainly for the era, terrifying unknown lands that were perhaps even more foreign to people of the early 1600s as Mars is to us. It has been suggested that even Shakespeare tried to imagine what this desolate and wild new place might be like in his phantasmagorical 1611 masterpiece, The Tempest.
In this new world we meet a group of people (presumably) driven mad by famine, pestilence and isolation. When first we encounter them they are on the precipice of leaving their current environs and striking out for another settlement that is only rumored to exist. Their interactions with one another are akin to those of the stranded boys in The Lord of the Flies, though perhaps less civilized. Their plans have been interrupted by the presence of a shipwrecked traveler called Olean (Phil Gillen). Dressed in the finery (though significantly dirtied) of the nobility, Olean is near death and looking for succor. But the settlers want answers. Where did he come from? Is there a reserve of food on the ship he came from? More important, they’re suspicious. Paranoia is the order of the day. How they end up dealing with him belies the fact that they lack leadership (their leaders having died off from disease and starvation), rational thinking and humanity.
The bottom line is these remaining settlers are completely nuts. Olean undoubtedly must think he’s landed in the middle of a psychiatric ward. Characters like the functionally named Distance (Spencer Aste) speak in long, drawn out sentences, making repeated, awkward hand motions that make an exaggerated and unnecessary connection to his dialog. And the women all seem in the throes of some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder or under the influence of some mighty powerful hallucinogens (one can only presume that they’ve been sampling the mushrooms that pop up after a heavy rain). Honor (Katie Rose Summerfield) has the beatific yet simple affectation of a child who’s been dropped repeatedly on her head. There’s no chance whatsoever the people of this settlement will live for more than another month or two and how they made it this far is beyond comprehension.
Strangers in the World is an interesting concept with real potential, but lacks the narrative elements to hold it together theatrically. Writer/Director Randy Sharp presents a story that lacks any clear purpose other than to create a collection of mostly non-sequiturs uttered by crazy people. And the ensemble (able actors in their own right) seems to have created their characters without regard to what the other actors had done, making the play’s 75 minutes feel double that. Had the story been up to the par of Chad Yarborough’s striking set (representing a darkened forest of Aspens), paired with David Zeffren’s absolutely gorgeous lighting and Karl Ruckdeschel’s achingly authentic period (and circumstance) costumes, Strangers might have been a moving production. But, alas, like a ship of fools stranded in a far away land, it didn’t stand a chance.
Strangers in the World. Through April 6 at the Axis Theatre (1 Sheridan Square, at the intersection of Barrow Street, Washington Place and West 4th Street, Greenwich Village). 75 minutes, no intermission. www.axiscompany.org
Photos: Pavel Antonov