Theater & Stage Priceless cargo

The Vex expertly dramatizes the tribulations and trauma of women convicts bound for Australia

Cast members of the Sheldon Vexler Theater's production of Female Transport (from left) Kimberly Stephenson, Christy Huffman, Eva Laporte, Anne Gerber, Belinda Harolds, and Susan Brosdon. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The Vexler Theater's production of Steve Gooch's Female Transport is a first-rate success. It boasts a strong ensemble cast as well as a truly stellar set, and demonstrates again artistic director Ken Frazier's knack for unearthing solidly constructed, intelligent plays. Set aboard a creaking ship bound for the Australian penal colony of 1807, the play chronicles the lives of a handful of its wretched female prisoners. With most of the crew and cargo swearing like, well, sailors, this is hardly the warm and fuzzy theatrical fare we usually get in San Antonio. We are treated instead to a disturbing yet ultimately moving account of human cruelty and human perseverance.

Much of Female Transport's power inheres in its simplicity: This is a journey of six women not so much through space as through disease, disillusion, and savagery. As characterized by Gooch, these convicts are less the dregs of society than its flotsam and jetsam, cast off from their homeland and forced by transport to confront both their unfortunate pasts and equally bleak futures. An important subplot, involving the financial machinations of the ship's captain and crew, emphasizes the economics of penal transport. Underneath the highfalutin' rhetoric of rehabilitation lies the dirty (and lucrative) business of financing human cargo, in which the worth of a human life is reckoned not in platitudes but in pounds sterling. The tension between these two forces - the economic and the personal - lends structure and heft to this primarily episodic play.

The female ensemble is top-notch, and succeeds in the considerable demands of creating characters that are both credible and coarse. In the first scene, we discover one convict threatening to ram a steel pin up an officer's membrum virile (definitely not the word in the play); in the next, we may enjoy another inmate puking from seasickness. As Winnie, the accidental matron of the group, Kimberly Stephenson expertly portrays a woman desperate for order and cleanliness within the bedlam. Likewise, Eva Laporte strikes just the right chord as a gentle, lovesick soul, while Susan Brogdon and Anne Gerber handle with delicacy another attraction born from captivity. The standouts in the cast, however, are Christy Huffman as the spitfire Nance, and Belinda Harolds as the pragmatic, sardonic Charlotte. Together, these six women make up the best ensemble cast in San Antonio since last year's The Clearing, also at the Vexler.

Female Transport

7:30pm Thu, 8pm Sat
Through May 21
2:30pm Sun, May 15
$15 adult; $8 student
Sheldon Vexler Theater
12500 NW Military Hwy
The supporting roles, all male, are portrayed more unevenly. As Sarge, the ethically challenged quartermaster, Eric Lozano overplays his character into caricature. (Sarge's hideous, frizzy wig hardly helps. Yo ho ho and a bottle of hair tonic, please.) His teenage assistant, Tommy (winningly played by Antony Cortino), abandons his moral compass even as the ship continues its inexorable journey south by southeast. As ship's surgeon, David Alford struggles with the play's most overtly didactic passages, but manages to keep both the ship and his characterization afloat. And Richard Lukens looks (and acts) every inch the exacting naval commander.

In addition to the generally high caliber of the acting, the production features what we thirsty drama fanatics almost never see in San Antonio: genuine coups de théâtre. This includes a sloshing, rollicking storm at sea, with enough water to make Shamu happy; a brilliant second-act closer; and one particularly effective surprise that relies almost entirely on Frazier's excellent lighting design. (You'll know it when you see it: It packs a punch to the gut.) Coupled with Frazier's set and Rick Malone's evocative sound design, Female Transport is an absorbing evening of theater. May you never find flogging so compelling, or so near.


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