Felix & The Diligence
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
September 25, 2011
Stories of adventure on the high seas have long been part of our tales, plays, and literature. Peter Pan, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Moby Dick, to name a few, have taken us on adventures battling storms, pirates and sea monsters. There is a romanticism to the captain and his loyal (or sometimes mutinous) crew and their search for fortune in the great unknown of the oceans. Pipeline Theatre Company's Felix & the Diligence (Or A Play About Fishermen in the 1940s) attempts to recreate this world, with mixed results.
Felix & the Diligence follows the journey of the crew of the Diligence and their Captain Chapman as they set out on an illegal fishing expedition, relentlessly pursued by Nazis and a mysterious ghost ship. The story mostly centers on two green crew members—Felix, who has always dreamed of a cod-fishing adventure on the high sea, but is rather inept at any function on a fishing vessel, and Felicia, who is volunteer for the crew, pretending to be a boy "Felix" (adding to some cute confusions with the boy Felix), as a means to escape the mainland for mysterious reasons. Felicia is instantly taken under the Captain's wing and begins to fall in love with him, while Felix becomes the joke of the vessel and gets relegated to night watchman duty. To further ostracize Felix, he frequently spots mermaids and mythical sea monsters on his patrols, much to disbelief of the rest of the crew. So when he realizes he hears Nazis onboard, the rest of the crew dismiss his warnings. But when a storm shipwrecks the Diligence on an island (where they encounter the lost Amelia Earhart, who happens to be Captain Chapman's ex-wife, and a crazy 1920s bootlegger), the threat of Nazi spies and the mysterious ghost ship trailing them (which might have something to do with Felicia's secret reason for stowing away) become very real.
Now the synopsis of the show sounds like quite a mouthful because, put simply, it is. The plot flies all over the place with crazy twists and turns. And while this makes for an exciting adventure, it also makes for some lack of focus. The show is an enjoyable ride, but at times Colby Day's script seems unsure of who it wants to focus on. The first half of the show seems to sell Felix as the protagonist, while the second act almost leaves Felix behind in favor of the love story between Felicia and Captain Chapman. Andy Yanni's set is fantastic, as he's built a full, detailed bow of a ship extending into the audience of the Connelly Theater, and Seth Clayton's music sets the mood and time period perfectly. However, beyond that the rest of the direction and design doesn't quite support the feel of a 1940s period piece. The play could almost be set modern day if not for appearances of Earhart and the Nazis.
They also made an odd casting decision, by cross-casting the narrator, Henley, and Captain Chapman, both of whom are supposed to be older men, as younger women. This would be fine if there seemed to be any point beyond a few self-referential laughs and a gimmick. It just seems a confusing choice, especially since there is already a cross-gender gag in the show with Felicia masquerading as a boy. Nicole Spiezio plays Henley, a blind old sailor man (who swears like a sailor) with heart and vigor, but often the dialogue given to her just seems gratuitously abrasive, beyond the point of humor.
The cast however (along with the set and music) is the bright spot of the show. They are deeply committed to the script, throwing their all into it. Arielle Siegel's Felicia radiates her conflicted desires for Captain Chapman and Benj Mirman's Felix is is an extremely lovable and sensitive loser. Willy Appelman provides a detailed, nuanced turn as Frits. Particularly impressive, though, is Glenn Apollo Hergenhahn's Scottish sailor, Donnach Macrae. His accent is so spot-on and consistent that one has to wonder if Hergenhahn is really Scottish and you can almost smell the alcohol coming off of his lovable superstitious drunk. Rounded out by some fun fight choreography by Seth Andrew Bridges, there's a lot of fun to be had with Felix and the Diligence, despite the apparent flaws.
It almost feels that the company was oscillating between trying to take the premise fully serious or winking at it. And it may have worked either way they decided to go with it, if they had chosen a consistent path, but as it is it never seems to click enough to fully pique interest throughout. However, Felix and the Diligence might provide enough swashbuckling action and fun stuff to look at to give it a go.