A whale of a play

“These waves have been killing us.”

That’s not a line of dialogue from the Wilma Theater’s latest production, “Under the Whaleback,” though it could be. Richard Bean’s play traces the life of a British fishing vessel during three different decades, including a fatal storm at sea. But in this case those words were spoken offstage, by technical director Clayton Tejada, about the intricate choreography of lights, sound, and hydraulics needed to portray that storm on stage.

The Wilma’s set, designed by Matt Saunders, represents the trawler in cross section, with hydraulic pistons which cause it to lurch up to three feet on either side. The open design of the ship’s cabin, inspired by director Blanka Zizka’s research in Hull, England, where the play is set, and on architectural drawings which Saunders studied, is meant to evoke the feeling of being on the ship itself. The sensation is enhanced by intricate lighting schemes and forty small speakers planted under seats throughout the theater that allow the sound of the waves to wash through the audience.

“We didn’t have to have a flat set with the actors running back and forth, acting like they’re on a moving boat,” Saunders says. “I started researching a lot of blueprints of boats, architectural drawings of boats, and found the cross-sections to be really stageworthy. I didn’t want to illustrate the sea around the boat, but to focus on the boat itself as an iconic object.”

A few hours before the show’s first preview performance, Tejada joked that crew members were taking bets on when the first audience member would become seasick. No one involved with the production had turned green just yet, but Saunders is hoping their efforts translate to a realistic experience for the audience. “The movement of hydraulic pistons isn’t metaphysically equivalent to the movement of the sea, so we’re trying to massage that with lights and sound,” he says. “We’re trying to make the movement of the boat as mysterious and dangerous as possible.”

 

If you go
‘Under the Whaleback’
Through April 7
Wilma Theater
265 South Broad St.
$39-$66, 215-546-7824
www.wilmatheater.org