There was a time when fishing fleets were substantial, when Provincetown had 40 working wharves, when the whole Cape made its living, one way or another, off the fish that gave it its name. There was a time when you could grow up in a place like Chatham or Provincetown and know you had a good living waiting for you just beyond the Bars, just beyond the Race. There was a time when the harbors were filled with the fleet coming in and buyers ashore waited eagerly for the catch.
That time is no more, but the fishermen remember, and in an extraordinary project that began with individual interviews and ended up onstage at the Cape Rep Theatre, their stories, memories, challenges, and joys are shared in Boundless, a “new play with music,” a world première playing at the Cape Rep through December 3rd.
I have really only one thing to say: go see it. Wow. Just…. wow.
Cape Rep commissioned playwright Allison Weller to work with interviews done for the Cape Cod Fishing Project to capture a sense of this arguably dying way of life. Her finesse in bringing those voices to the stage is extraordinary, and even more brilliant is Art Devine’s inspired stage direction. It’s a tricky piece, in that there’s no story throughline; what we’re seeing is a series of vignettes, conversations, interactions, and memories, and in lesser hands the piece could have been reduced to a series of lectures. Weller and Devine keep the pace moving forward, keep surprising the audience, and—most of all—keep providing a deep sense of emotional connection to this culture and this community, offering far more than simply a glimpse into their lives. By the end of the play audiences are left feeling, as well as thinking.
Not that there isn’t a lot of thought going on. This is the story of the survival (or lack thereof) of small-scale fisheries along with nothing less than the corporate takeover of the ocean, “privatizing access to a public resource.” Consultant Owen Nichols, who has dedicated over a decade to researching fisheries, brought sobering facts and chilling statistics to the project, and, interestingly, audiences leave performances deep in discussion about the issues raised.
We’re introduced to the first characters—not together unsurprisingly—at the bar of the Chatham Squire. “Fishermen used to own this town,” one guy remembers. “There are some very disconnected people here,” notes someone else, a can of beer in his hand. “That’s one word for them,” rejoins another.
And there it is: the flash of humor woven through the play that enables us to truly see the characters as multi-dimensional people, to glimpse the joy and lightness that’s the flip side to the danger and the travail of the industry.
The music is mostly just great fun. Whether it’s Myers on her ukulele (“the cod that’s on your plate came from out of state”), Andrew gently doing a sung meditation with guitarist Paddo Devine, or the whole crew doing a hip-hop explanation of where fishermen’s money goes (hint—it isn’t to their families: “hell, no, the boat wins!”), the songs provide transitions, humor, and occasionally gravitas.
But mostly… mostly, you leave with an understanding of the tremendous aching love these people have for the profession and the way of life. You’re finally grasping the joy of the opening song, with its haunting refrain of a world that answers only to wind, weather, and tide, and maybe envying it… just a little.