by Naomi McDougall Graham · August 15, 2014
Whiskey Jack, presented by Saint Fortune, written by Daniel Carroll, follows the “true” (read, fictionally true) story of the Manhattan Logging Corporation’s 1929 expedition up to the Northern Boreal. Led by the sherry-sipping Redford Wickham, who has more money than sense, the logging camp quickly starts going to pieces as a mysterious illness sweeps the men. Presented as gastrointestinal discomfort followed quickly by aural/visual hallucinations and madness, the sickness is soon assumed to be the work of a supernatural and sinister force, “The Whiskey Jack.” The camp splinters as different factions form and various theories develop on what or who this Whiskey Jack is and, as the men descend further into madness and panic rises, the tale gets bloodier and darker.
It’s a compelling idea and the presence of a three-piece band onstage (“The Whiskey Jills”) to play and sing the show’s musical numbers (re-purposed classic tunes) adds a wonderful atmospheric reality to the piece, as do the excellent costumes by Sam Seerman. It is unfortunate, then, that the play manages neither to be as effective or compelling as you keep hoping it will be.
The biggest culprit in this, I think, is a simple lack of clarity in the storytelling. The story is framed by the device of a young researcher/professor/curiosity-seeker, Alistair (played by the playwright Daniel Carroll) who presents the “facts” of the case to the audience in a furiously-fast and passionate manner, difficult, most of the time to follow. More fundamentally, though, it’s never clear what this man’s investment in the story is or why he should so fervently care to prove the “truth” of it. As a result it is never clear what the tale should mean to the audience.
It is worth admitting that some of a healthy amount of plot-confusion may have derived from the lengthy opening number, “Pay Me My Money Down,” which was tremendously difficult to follow due to both the speed with which the cast delivers an unfocused amount of information and the lack of enunciation which plagued almost the entire cast throughout the show. Listening in to other audience members after the show, I gathered I was not alone in feeling that I may have missed most of the premise of the show in that opening number.
The problem of the opening is, however, the crux of what afflicts this show: too much information and story packed in, such that, as an audience, you never quite manage to settle in and hang onto the sincerely interesting story lying underneath the jumble.
This is not to say that the show does not have its redeeming qualities or moments. Gregory Kostal is terrific as the taciturn Morris and Gavin Price is smoothly delectable as the ridiculous Redford (though there is much unevenness elsewhere in the cast).
Also of note is the terrific physical work of the entire group. Dealing with a simple, but cleverly and inventively used, set of crates, the cast creates for us a wide-ranging number of landscapes and, with them, there are some artfully choreographed moments, such as when the men participate in a wholly-convincing log rolling contest, with nary a log in sight. Props to director Conrad Kluck for this work.
The Whiskey Jills, Rosie Malone (Cello), Chrystine Rayburn (Guitar/Clarinet), and Mary Spencer Knapp (Accordion), again are simply terrific talents and sent shivers through me, in particular, with a stunning funeral song.
The program says that Whiskey Jack is the result of a devised workshop in February 2013 and that the script, written by Carroll, is based on those improvisations. I hope very much that the company, beyond this run, continues to revise and hone this piece, cutting away the extraneous matter, and getting to what the play is already at its heart: a tremendously interesting story.