Local author Warren Adler, according to a note in the program at the Hartke Theatre, is the first American to write a full-length play about Christopher Columbus. That his play, "The Knight of the Ocean Sea," is wholly predictable and insufferably bombastic is apparently of no concern to Catholic University's drama department. Getting there first, as Columbus himself proved, is what counts.
It is difficult to imagine any other reason for CU to stage this sprawling work, not that the production is measurably better than the script. Led by guest artist Philip LeStrange, as Columbus, the large student cast has been coached in an inflated rhetorical style of acting that rivals Adler's hoary dialogue every step of the way. Although there is some tumult going on -- nefarious intrigues at the court of Isabella and Ferdinand, gathering mutiny on the Santa Maria, not to mention the Inquisition off-stage -- William Graham's frieze-dried direction invariably turns actors into declaiming statues.
"The Knight of the Ocean Sea" skips over the years like a flat stone glancing off water, until it finally comes to a dead stop and sinks. The 10 scenes of the first act show the Genoese map-maker struggling to convince various cardboard dignitaries that sailing West is the quickest way to the East. In the second act, he tries to quell the fears of members of his crew who are clamoring to turn back. Just when things look darkest, birds are sighted. Columbus and his men fall to their knees. There is really little in this historical pastiche that amplifies or even animates the usual bromides about Columbus.
I am not sure what actors can do with such lines as, "God does not work through a committee," "I cannot sleep, my body juices choke me," or "Better to follow one man with a dream like yours than 1,000 without one." This cast, however, utters them with the gusto of a troupe of 19th-century hams shredding Shakespeare. The diction is deafening.
Elena Zlotescu's costumes appear to have been pieced together for a masquerade party, while set designer Joseph St. Germain has rigged up panels of burlap, which rise and fall to accommodate the ever-shifting locales. As a result, the whole misguided affair looks rather as if it is taking place in a restless gunny sack.
THE KNIGHT OF THE OCEAN SEA. By Warren Adler. Directed by William Graham. Sets and lights, Joseph St. Germain; costumes, Elena Zlotescu; original music, James Petosa. With Philip LeStrange, Francois Chau, Barbara Pinolini, Jeff Provost, Jeffrey Hyatt. At Catholic University's Hartke Theatre through Oct. 24.