Donal O'Kelly's much-lauded one-man show Catalpa — a high seas, true story about a famous jailbreak in 1875 — is being performed for the first time by a woman, Winnipeg's Sharon Bajer.
Catalpa is both a significant storytelling challenge for any actor and also the name of a Massachusetts-based whaling ship on a secret mission to bring back six members of the Irish independence movement imprisoned in Western Australia. It's a trecherous voyage that requires immense range for one person to embody a multitude of characters, human and otherwise, with a single set and few props.
Bajer is exceptional with O'Kelly's richly detailed script, which the Irishman personally allowed her to tighten to 65 minutes from the usual 90. She and her director husband Carson Nattrass make inventive use of the four, long lengths of sheer muslin draped over the stage that serve as the main design visual. One moment the material is gathered to look like a swaddled baby and the next it creates the shrouded ghostly face of a dead mother-in-law. Then oars, handcuffs, whale blubber, horse reins as well as course as the billowing sails of the Catalpa.
Together with percussionist Todd Koga, Bajer create a vivid soundscape of the Catalpa's home port of new Bedford — screeching seabirds, the clippity-clop of stagecoach horses and the rat-a-tat of factory work. It's a good yarn well told.
— Kevin Prokosh