note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Gertrude Blum … Barby Cardillo
Harry Bales … Mark Peckham
Back in the mid-70s, Edward J. Moore’s THE SEA HORSE opened off-Broadway and received good notices and a few awards --- I was a college sophomore at the time and made a note to go down to see it but never did. More than half a lifetime later, I have finally caught up with THE SEA HORSE courtesy of the Nora Theatre; I had to work with its production, so to speak, but went away contented.
The Sea Horse is a waterfront bar run by a fat, formidable woman named Gertrude Blum; one rainy night, her sailor-lover Harry Bales comes home from sea. Harry has been helping out at the Sea Horse whenever he’s ashore, including bedroom duties, but now he wants to buy his own fishing boat, settle down and raise a family with Guess-Who as his bride. Gertrude fights him every step of the way --- her track record with men has so far proved disastrous --- while Harry, fueled by drink and love, continues to push for a happy ending. If THE SEA HORSE plays like an acting class exercise, all ups and downs, that is because Mr. Moore, a former-seaman-turned-actor, first wrote and performed the play as individual scenes while studying with Uta Hagen (he later played Harry in the off-Broadway production). Despite some soapsuds, here and there, and Harry’s alcoholism being glossed over (at least he turns dreamy and affectionate after he’s had a few), THE SEA HORSE has a leathery charm and it offers two irresistible character roles; as far as I can tell, Mr. Moore never wrote another play but THE SEA HORSE remains alive and kicking, thirty years later.
I attended the Nora production anticipating a Louise Dressler-Wallace Beery type of waterfront comedy --- you know: rowdiness, bottles flying, etc. --- instead, director Normi Noel has gone for character and nuance, making THE SEA HORSE akin to Mr. O’Neill’s early sea-dramas and she coaxes a two-character ensemble out of Barby Cardillo and Mark Peckham that for all their noise is firmly played out in a minor key with moving results. I’ve three nitpicks: the sound of rainfall that opens both acts shuts off when the dialogue begins despite the characters’ comments that it’s still pouring, outside; a sudden fist in the gut is all-too faked; the lovers do not embrace in closing as indicated in the script which makes Harry seem somewhat threatening; otherwise, I adjusted my expectations and all was well. Ms. Noel focuses on Ms. Cardillo which is understandable as Gertrude is the showier role (most of the play’s revelations are hers and must be pried out of her); Ms. Cardillo’s Gertrude is paradoxically at her most vulnerable when she is at her hardest: through actions and vocals just a shade over the top, Ms. Cardillo implies that Gertrude’s hardboiled act is just that --- an act --- but one that has become so ingrained that she shouts even in quiet moments; when she wells up with heartsick emotion over Harry's unexpected gift, she is a concrete dam threatening to crack open. Nor does Mr. Peckham’s Harry come off as the familiar Big Lug but, rather, as a man who’s been around but has retained (or acquired) an unshakeable decency, offset by the occasional harshness that stems from retaliation rather than from malice. Ms. Cardillo and Mr. Peckham’s voices are well-orchestrated (hers: sharp and incisive; his: husky and gentle) and their kisses, sexy and expressive: when they first kiss, after some squabbling, it is a welcome-home smooch; Mr. Peckham/Harry pulls back, looks into Ms. Cardillo/Gertrude’s eyes for a moment and closes in, again, but now Ms. Cardillo/Gertrude is the one who pulls back, sensing that Harry wants to make love this time around rather than merely fuck (think of MAN OF LA MANCHA’s Aldonza singing, “Blows and abuse I can take and give back again / Tenderness I cannot bear”); in Act Two, when they kiss, Harry clearly wants to joyfully bang the bejeesus out of her. Between Mr. Peckham and Ms. Cardillo, a kiss is more than a gesture --- it becomes a prop.
The Boston Playwrights’ Studio A is as challenging for scene designers as is the Devanaughn Theatre’s brick box at the Piano Factory. Studio A is so intimate a space with its platform stage only inches away from the front row that designers must create worlds with the audience practically imbedded in them and where artifice is subjected to the closest scrutiny --- thus, some of the most convincing settings I’ve seen have been displayed, here. Eric Levenson has come up with an evocative, well-detailed bar down to the salt-stained slate floor and the faint silhouette of a seahorse on the front door’s frosted panel and his director and actors pay him the highest compliment by freely using every square inch of it; only that sudden stopping of the rain shatters the illusion --- happily, Ms. Cardillo and Mr. Peckham pick up where the rain leaves off.