Minor Dramas

New York City Players on the Harbor Lights Yacht

June 1 – June 3, 2021

“Flights of troubled grey fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled grey vapours among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.”
— Herman Melville, Benito Cereno, 1855

In all my years living in New York City, I’ve never attended a production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park — out of laziness, perhaps, and a strong aversion to waiting in line — but it must also imply something about my distance from the world of mainstream theater. In school, I studied all of the comedies and romances, from which I learned much about the couple form, the names of Italian cities prominent in the 14th century, not to mention genderfuckery. Yet the private exercise of reading excludes the awkwardness (or virtuosity) of live performance, and all the accidents of circumstance that weigh on the spectator’s analysis, from poor acoustics to period costumes to missed cues. 

The first piece of (outdoor) theater I attended after the brief hiatus from events of all kinds and waking life as we had known it was The Vessel (2021) by New York City Players’s Incoming Theater Division (directed by Richard Maxwell; conceived by Jasmine Pisapia and Katiana Rangel). Launched in the choppy waters of the city’s harbor at an anchor point just south of Ellis Island, the performance otherwise boasted simple staging and, like other Maxwell projects, a sincere conceit. On the deck of the Harbor Lights Yacht, pairs of actors stood atop two low podiums directly facing the audience, arranged in an open semi-circle of folding chairs, with Lady Liberty and the city’s financial district imposing a cinematic backdrop. One by one, the players delivered a monologue written by another member of the company, unaided by microphone or other sound equipment (aside from a guitar in the case of Ntungalia Enoch). Each monologue was a short memory of someone its author had known who had died. Choreographed movement from left to right across the divided stage distinguished each teller from each author, effectively “blocking” the ritual of the eulogy for the small public assembled, who only perceived the intimacy of each recital as the play went on.

The gravity of the text and the formal austerity of its presentation were especially heightened on the last evening’s performance by a shift in barometric pressure. As we boarded around 6 p.m., thick gray clouds had begun to billow overhead, and most of the audience elected to wear the disposable rain ponchos provided. There was lightning over the water port side (“upstage right”), and it was difficult to hear through the wind and the plastic. Worried the storm would worsen, my seatmate refreshed the weather app on his phone, unable to follow any other activity. Rain streamed down and the play’s anecdotal memories, retold with moderate emotion at a one-person remove, streamed together, too: a younger brother, a wise grandmother, a loyal friend. The utter pathos of the setting brought to mind the harsh viewing conditions of the outdoor courtyard at the Globe Theater and the origins of drama in ancient Greece as ritual under an open sky. Here, again, the weather — let’s call it the universe — was a formidable partner in The Vessel’s set design, as if to prove the emptiness of the words uttered and the smallness of human suffering. At the conclusion of the proceedings, we descended to the ship’s lower level, where there was a cash bar. All the windows were thrown open to the breeze as we cruised back to the pier at East 34th Street. A small electric disco ball threw colored light onto the floor.

Dedicated to Milton Gomez and William Utterback.