Staff writer Mary Qiu listened to Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017, a free podcast production made available by the Public Theatre, that examines Trump’s rise to power, scrutinizes liberals’ language surrounding Trump, and explores the divides in our society.

On Friday, October 16th, I clicked on the Public Theatre page to tune into Shipwreck, without reading the program information and expected a Zoom play. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a three-part podcast production, assuring that my eyes would be relieved of further technology-induced strain. I put in my earbuds and listened to Part 1 at my desk, Part 2 on my morning walk, and Part 3 later in the evening. In total, the three parts of the play were two hours and thirty minutes in length.

Written by Anne Washburn and directed by Saheem Al, Shipwreck first premiered in the U.S. at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in February 2020, until the pandemic prompted the cancellation of further performances. Now, the production returns in the form of an audio drama, free and available for download on Public Theatre.

As the name suggests, the play is set in 2017 and revolves around a group of liberal friends on a weekend getaway in a farmhouse in Upstate New York. Their conversations inevitably revolve around Trump and his scandals, and it felt like the same tired and sprawling conversation that I have heard. However, as their reunion devolves into horror—no food, no drink, snowed in, no cell service, no power—their conversations start to devolve too, as the hypocrisy and shocking revelations bubble to the surface. Shipwreck attempts to answer the question—how did Trump rise to power?—and highlight the dishonesty with which many well-to-do liberals engage in this conversation. Despite the seemingly disjointed narratives, I believe that Shipwreck was still successful in achieving this goal, leaving me more self-aware than I was prior to listening to the play.

Specifically, the plot begins with Jools (Sue Jean Kim) and Richard (Richard Topol) inviting their friends to their recently purchased 18th-century farmhouse. As the evening goes on, the storm of revelations inside the farmhouse starts to resemble the snowstorm outside. Luis (Raúl Esparza) and Andrew (Jeremy Shamos) reveal that they are very rich—rich enough to be part of the one percent–and Richard reveals, to everyone’s total shock, that he actually voted for Trump in a purple state.

In a parallel narrative, Lawrence (Bruce McKenzie) is a white American farmer who had adopted a boy from Kenya. He explains that he only adopted a Black boy because it was too difficult to adopt a white boy, and he explains both the joy of fatherhood and the alienation he has seen his son experience.

The friends’ imagined recreations of various Trump encounters interweave with both of those two narratives. The friends muse about the meeting between Trump and Comey in 2016 and between the meeting that Trump claims to have had with Bush’s delegation in 2003, and these scenes coming to life after the musings.

Although I enjoyed the majority of the play, I thought the parallel storyline about the adopted Kenyan boy and the white farmer was out of place, and strangely disconnected from the main storyline. On the other hand, I thought the dramatic recreations of the various Trump encounters were a testament to how theatricality can be preserved, even in the podcast medium. The imagined Comey and Trump encounter is steeped in a hilarious romantic air, with instrumental music, and a description of a candle-lit dinner table, complete with fancy drapes. In another imagined scene with Trump, Obama slowly morphs into George Bush, and this revelation of character was conveyed seamlessly through dialogue. The heightened theatricality of both of these imagined scenes was evident and added a contrasting dimension to the more quotidian dinner table scenes.

Even though a podcast production eliminated the formal elements of set design and staging, I still thought the experience was immersive. In particular, Palmer Hefferan’s masterful sound design and adaptation to the podcast medium gave the production an amazing and consistently high-quality soundscape. Sound effects like fire crackles, paired with tasteful musical interludes, created a clear setting for the play that allowed me to visualize the scenes. The precisely crafted soundscape made the experience that much more intimate, giving a peek into the character’s lives. 

The voice acting was also incredible, especially from Philip James Branon who played the Obama-morphed-George W. Bush. The imitation of Obama’s speech patterns that change into Bush’s, as well as the navigation between Obama’s jolly tone to the serious subject of the Iraq war, were skilfully executed. The production also fully capitalized on the form of the audio drama to infuse the play with life, using subtle inflections and vocal add-ons that might have otherwise been lost in a staged production. The sparse and well-timed responses of “mhhhm” and “hmmm” from Allie (Brooke Bloom) to other guests’ rambling political tirades were both hilarious and true to life.

The soundscape and voice acting together allowed for an intimate experience, with much room for self-reflection. When the play devolves and the characters reveal their flaws, I felt like I was intruding on a private conversation that I was not meant to hear. It was evident that none of the friends were materially impacted by Trump’s presidency. I felt embarrassed for them and their self-righteous tones, but at the same time I was personally mortified, since I know I have had these exact conversations with my friends and family. When Richard reveals that he had voted for Trump, and that he did so intentionally in a purple state in a second revelation, I was also reminded of how dishonest people can be in these conversations. Yet, the intimate soundscape and the masterful writing allowed me to empathize with Richard. I am left to wonder how many people in my life lie about their political views, and how much empathy I can still reserve for them.

Other moments in the play also push me to consider my positionality in conversations, and to reflect on how much substantial action I have undertaken in proportion to my critiques of the Trump administration.  In particular, when Allie accuses her friends of inaction and boasts about how much she posted on social media, as well about how many petitions she has signed, I could not help but be reminded of the current activism climate on social media. Eventually, Allie admits that she could have done more than sign petitions, and others lament about how they don’t feel quite compelled to be protesting on the streets. Shipwreck is a reminder of how easy it is to adopt the critical rhetoric of the Trump administration, and how difficult it is to transform that rhetoric into substantial action.

Shipwreck is both an indicting and deeply compassionate examination of our tendency to choose what’s easy over action. It has successfully made me more aware of how recycled, repetitive, superficial, and dishonest our conversations surrounding politics can be.

I found the sprawling nature of the friends’ conversation very true to dinner table conversations; they talked about everything from Ivanka Trump gossip to racial discrimination and censorship in art. Like real conversations, too, there is no semblance of a real conclusion to the questions the play raises. Still, the flagrant arrogance and transgressions of the conversation struck a chord, and I enjoyed how sincerely the play explored Trump’s rise to power and my own compassion for these deeply flawed liberal characters.

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