The moment I entered the Lee Center for the Arts last Friday, I knew I wouldn’t be laughing. This year’s fall production, “Female Transport,” is not easy to watch, but it is important. It’s also emotionally taxing and potentially triggering, given the inclusion of scenes depicting gender-based violence and suicide—and because it is all packed into less than two hours, without an intermission.
The play follows a group of six female convicts as they are transported (with about 100 others, not physically seen in the play) from England to Australia in the early 19th century. Throughout their six-month journey, the women on board are chained to the floor of their below-deck quarters, visited only occasionally by four men on the boat: the young deck hand Tommy, the sergeant, the surgeon and the captain. During these visits, it becomes clear that power dynamics, especially along gender lines, are the driving force of the show.
What first tipped me off to the gravity of this story was the distinctive and effective set design. Low, heavy beams stretch across the ceiling, boxing the audience and the actors in together. A single lantern hangs in the middle of the room, casting a dim light on the stage — a pile of ratty blankets and pillows on a wooden floor. The audience surrounds the stage on three sides. It’s an intimate arrangement that allows the audience to fully experience the convicts’ journey. As director Andrew McGinn explains in his Director’s Note; the audience joins the prisoners in “the belly of an angry whale.”
While the women and the audience remain in this tiny enclosure throughout, the male characters are often seen sitting on a landing up a flight of stairs, presumably in the captain’s quarters. This arrangement emphasizes, both literally and symbolically, the superiority of the men in the play, most of whom maintain a misogynistic frame of mind. The men’s sexist attitude is summed up in a line delivered by Sarge, played by Seattle University graduate student Sean Arsurus: “They ain’t logical creatures at the best of times, and these ain’t exactly ‘intellectuals.’”
Women in the 19th century were already considered inferior to men; therefore these women, as convicts, were therefore considered the lowest of the low. This allows the male characters, namely Sarge, to carry out extreme acts of injustice fueled by sexism.
In the play, there are several shocking and terribly realistic rape scenes. One of them, between Tommy (played by Garth Ball) and Sarah (played by Leslie Burnett) could be considered consensual sex, but how consensual can an encounter between a jailor and a prisoner really be? These scenes are done well, in that they are just as uncomfortable and bewildering to witness as they should be.
In scenes of violence and throughout the entire play, tension between the characters is tangible. The first words the convicts speak to one another are harsh and sarcastic and it is clear that the audience has stepped into the story halfway through. The convicts have already experienced so much physical and emotional trauma that they are hardened and angry—or, in the case of Pitty, played by Jaime Riggs, traumatized and hysterical. Neither they, nor the audience, are allowed a moment’s peace.
The play begins with full-volume yelling—in Cockney accents—which becomes grating after several scenes. Though the tension is necessary and feels appropriate given the subject matter, at times it is difficult to endure. I sometimes found myself waiting for the intermission, only to realize it would never come. Like the convicts, the audience is bound to see the journey through without any stops.
In contrast to the intense conflict throughout the play, the climax is much quieter: in a particularly disturbing scene, Pitty hangs herself in the middle of the night. While the women look for someone to blame, Tommy, who has spent the night, wants to go back to sleep. Though Tommy begins as a sympathetic character, in this moment it is clear that he’s just like the rest of the men in the play, who consider their problems to be infinitely more important than those of the suffering convicts.
At the end of the play, the ship finally arrives in Australia. Bright lights shine down onto the stage as the women are exposed to the sun for the first time in six months. As an audience member, I imagined the convicts must have felt terrible after this long physical, mental and emotional journey. I didn’t feel it was right to leave and move on with my life. I can’t say that I enjoyed “Female Transport,” but I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.
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