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What do H.M.S. Pinafore, Anything Goes, and Eugene O'Neill's Thirst have in common? They are all set on boats. And now at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, The Boat in the Tiger Suit, written by Hank Willenbrink and directed by Jose Zayas, is joining the ranks of those nautical entertainments.
At the start of the play, which runs August 22-31, a family gathers on a boat for a patriarch's funeral. "The very first stage direction in the play says that the scene should look like a family portrait, the negatives of a Norman Rockwell," says Willenbrink. As the surreal dark comedy unfolds, it becomes clear that the father's body is not, in fact, in the casket. A series of haunted interactions follow, and as Willenbrink explains, the children of the deceased father wrestle with "what it means to be a family when you don't have your parents around."
Willenbrink believes "there's a bit of a Norman Rockwell fetish out there." To that end, nostalgia is a sticking point for the playwright. "A lot of times, nostalgia gives us a foundational sense that there was a perfect kind of moment. In a certain sense, Norman Rockwell is that kind of 'perfect moment' America. I think that part of the job of being a writer is to deconstruct or unpack how we live and how things work. And a lot of that is basing it off of collectively held ideas that a lot of people have."
However, Willenbrink, who is a professor at the University of Scranton, didn't begin this play with a major theme in mind. The title came first. "The title has a mysterious complexity to it. It's an oxymoron. The title was the first step into the logic of the play. If the title works, then the logic of the play has to follow."For example, the ghost of the deceased father shows up in a scene and says, "A tiger ate me. I got here as fast as I could."
"On the one hand," Willenbrink says, "that line doesn't make sense. But in the context and logic of the play it has a lot of resonance." Reflecting on his own relationship to language, Willenbrink says, "I teach at a university and am around and obsessed by language a lot."
As far as boats go, he says, "A boat is kind of like possibility: It can go places, but at the same time you're confined." And while a play on a skiff may run the risk of static, inert staging, Willenbrink counters that it provides the opportunity for stillness. "As an audience member I find it rewarding to be able to focus on smaller actions."
Boats provide a pinnacle of dramatic tension. "Anyone in their post mid-20s has a ton of defense mechanisms," says Willenbrink. "We know how to extricate ourselves from situations to our advantage. So the virtue of putting my characters on a boat is that those defense mechanisms get worn down. There's only so many places they can go, unless they jump off. That containment they experience is a really dramatically rich place to explore."
(Get to know The Brick Theater in this exclusive documentary from TDF)
Eliza Bent is a writer and performer based in Brooklyn
Photo by Hunter Canning
Above: Nic Grelli, Maggie Bofill, Diana Stahl, & Brian McManamon (L to R)