Kathryn Elizabeth, a marine biologist, encounters a series of characters — a method actor, a philosophical skeptic, a trial lawyer, and a sickly doctor — who begin to deconstruct reality from various angles while aboard the Brig Pilgrim. She goes mad, takes on the persona of Prince Hamlet, and attempts to defend “the order of science and reason.”
Kathryn Elizabeth, an underachieving marine biologist, has recently lost her father who was mysteriously poisoned in his sleep. She feels the world is slipping away from her and starts taking high-risk dives in an attempt to distract herself from her grief. During one of her dives she discovers an “improbable specimen”: a five hundred year old spear-tip lodged within the fin of a recently severed fin. She boards the Brig Pilgrim, an ancient tall ship moored to its dock in Dana Point Harbor to keep a lookout for this mysterious creature. While on board a series of characters begin deconstructing her reality, thereby interfering with her goal of reclaiming her familiar world.
The first of these characters, and the main antagonist, is Li, a tall and beautiful woman from Beijing, who philosophically pulls apart, and even mocks, the scientific method that Kathryn Elizabeth follows like a devoted soldier. Meanwhile, John Davies, a method actor renowned for his streak of never breaking character, begins to fabricate a fictional reality in which he is a despotic First Mate and all those aboard the Pilgrim are his subservient merchant sailors in the year 1840. The other characters include: Dan Kernigan, a successful trial lawyer and Kathryn Elizabeth’s ex, who gaslights Kathryn Elizabeth into believing she’s the mad one on the ship; Nadia, a 2nd-grade teacher who easily succumbs to conspiracy theories; and Jack, a sickly doctor who deconstructs the notions of death and time.
Kathryn Elizabeth loses her mind during the night watch and takes on the persona of Prince Hamlet, the “rotting” Prince of Denmark. She begins speaking in nonsense and abstract poetry, and for the first time, she begins winning her arguments with the other characters. By the end of the play, she has become the mad one on the ship. She fails to salvage the world, but she finds acceptance: her father is not coming back; the sciences have fallen; objectivity has been supplanted by a performed reality. Kathryn Elizabeth has witnessed herself transform into a character, as the others became living people. Kathryn Elizabeth informs the others that the world order they’re conspiring to create will not prevail. The five of them are, in fact, part of the rot that will be carried off the word’s stage, along with her own. Kathryn Elizabeth is content, nonetheless, because she has learned to see the beauty in the rot.
Following the mysterious poisoning of her father, Kathryn Elizabeth is overwhelmed by grief and feels like the world is slipping away from her. While deep in mourning, she takes a series of risky dives to the ocean floor, during which she discovers an “improbable specimen”: a 500-year old spear-tip lodged within a recently severed fin. She quickly develops an obsession with the specimen and takes a series of even longer dives in an attempt to find the unknown creature. Her final dive, an 18-hour long dive, causes an unsightly water-ulcer to develop on her lower abdomen. Kathryn Elizabeth, in her own words, is rotting.
Following this 18-hour long dive, Kathryn Elizabeth returns to her lab, and is confronted by Li, the first of several characters who will begin to deconstruct her reality. Li is a tall and beautiful woman from Beijing who identifies as an alternative scientist, though she’s more of an anti-scientific philosophical skeptic. Li uses absurdist logic to mock the scientific method, which agitates Kathryn Elizabeth, who, in spite of being an underachieving marine biologist, is religiously devoted to the sciences.
The two woman engage in a battle of wits and taunts while still in the lab, and nearly come to the point of physical confrontation. Their most significant point of contention is in regards to the identity of the unknown creature. Kathryn Elizabeth asserts that it’s most likely some run-of-the-mill shark, while Li asserts that the creature is likely anything but that, perhaps even a whale, or a 500-year old Greenland Shark from the Arctic. Li is desperate to find this creature, as it could hold great significance to the “alternative sciences,” though she refuses to explain why. The women, in spite of their mutual disdain, agree to work together to find the creature, which leads them to board the Brig Pilgrim, an historic tall ship moored to its dock in Dana Point Harbor.
Once on board the Brig Pilgrim, Kathryn Elizabeth is confronted by four other characters, all of whom continue to deconstruct reality, but in their own various manners. Dan Kernigan is a over-confident trial lawyer who is an expert at invalidating evidence. Nadia is a venomous second grade teacher who is easily swayed by conspiracy theories; she’s also the supervisor of the children on board (the children are “played” by the audience) who are on board for an immersive sleep-away camp, in which amateur actors poorly act out a 19th century merchant ship experience. Jack is a sickly doctor who hardly knows Kathryn Elizabeth, but the two end up getting engaged when Jack proposes out of the blue. The final character, and the second antagonist, is Mate Proompt, who is actually a performed character, played by John Davies, a famous stage actor who is renowned for his streak of never breaking character. John Davies will take the immersive experience to a hyper-realistic level when he takes over the show. Adding to the complexities are the relationships among Nadia, Jack, Dan and Kathryn Elizabeth. Kathryn Elizabeth and Dan were briefly lovers while Nadia was stuck abroad during the pandemic; Jack was once fiance to Nadia, until Jack became sick and drove Nadia into the arms of Dan, who used to be best friends with Jack. Kathryn Elizabeth is at first unaware of Jack’s past relationship with Nadia, who is now, bizarrely, her closest friend.
Li uses the absurdity of this web of relationships to further her proof that Kathryn Elizabeth’s incessant need to “make sense of things” isn’t suitable as a method to study the world they inhabit. Nadia overhears this, and lashes out against the scientists who are trying to control her life. Nadia and Li agree that it’s probably a whale in the harbor, citing the First Mate (the character), who gave a long passionate speech earlier, calling the 500-year old creature in the harbor a whale.
Meanwhile, in the men’s cabin, Jack and Dan place a bet that Dan, the great trial lawyer, won’t be able to get the First Mate to break character, and, in the mate’s cabin, the First Mate enslaves his Second Mate after accusing him of being “an imposter” or “an actor.” It’s also revealed that the method actor has brought a prop with him for verisimilitude: a six-foot long harpoon.
Kathryn Elizabeth quickly believes she’s going mad, and when she bumps into Dan for the first time since their relationship abruptly ended, Dan gaslights her and insists that she’s the mad one on the ship.
A rolling blackout sweeps through the harbor and the First Mate starts to “believe” that the Pilgrim is in the open seas, and asserts that the year is 1840. Once Dan begins to play along, at Nadia’s insistence, both Nadia and the Second Mate start buying into Mate Proompt’s theatrical reality.
Kathryn Elizabeth becomes vulnerable with Li when they meet up on deck alone, and wonders if she’s reached that breaking point where she should give up on her scientific career. Li offers to help, but Kathryn Elizabeth insists that Li is part of the problem. Kathryn Elizabeth tells Li that the world is slipping away and she must try to take it back; she has a duty to the sciences. Li mocks her and tells her that the sciences have no sense of duty towards her.
After a traumatic discussion with Jack, who deconstructs the notions of time and death, Kathryn Elizabeth falls into a vat of fish guts and busts open her head. She takes on the persona of Prince Hamlet, and begins to fight back against the other characters. She confronts Dan, Li, and the First Mate, but most of what she speaks is nonsense and abstract poetry; ironically she ends up winning these arguments. Her fictional persona, The Prince of Dana, reigns victorious until a 7-year old child shoots her off the ship with the First Mate’s harpoon, and severs her hand. Dan gives up on his quest to break the First Mate (after failing multiple times). Moments later, a whale with a missing fin is spotted in the water. Nadia believes that Kathryn Elizabeth has turned into a whale. Li says that even by her standards this isn’t likely; Nadia takes this as a sign that it’s not “im-possible.” When the harbor lights turn back on, Nadia becomes disillusioned, and heads beneath ship. Eventually all but the First Mate return to the cabin.
When the sun comes up, the First Mate’s act comes to a close; John Davies, the actor, calls the scene, and bows (breaking character). At the same time, Kathryn Elizabeth climbs back onto the ship with a severed arm, and tells John Davies to stay with her until “The Prince’s wedding.” John Davies, no longer in character, reveals that he still has to officiate the wedding between Dan and Nadia the next morning. John Davies is there because Dan hired him to partake in this event. “The Prince of Dana” instructs John Davies to marry “him” off to “his princess,” in the event that The Prince falls asleep and doesn’t wake up. The next morning, John Davies, serving as the wedding officiant marries Dan to Nadia, and also weds Jack to a sleeping Kathryn Elizabeth.
Kathryn Elizabeth has a dream during the wedding, in which her father instructs her to avenge his death. Kathryn Elizabeth wakes up and finds the First Mate’s revolver on her seat. She points the gun at Li. As she aims the gun at Li, Kathryn Elizabeth gives a closing speech in which she identifies with the rot of the sciences. She challenges Li to a Hamlet-style sporting competition, wherein the first to three hits wins. Li asks why Kathryn Elizabeth keeps on pretending when she knows she’ll lose. Kathryn Elizabeth responds that it’s not about winning the war; the war is rigged, but there are battles to be won. She gives the first point to Li, for being right from the start about the creature in the harbor being a whale. She fires the gun at Li, but the gun is just a prop (unlike the harpoon). Kathryn Elizabeth then gives the second point to Li. She gives the third point to someone else, who “comes on from afar, softly,” suggesting to Li that it’s not her game to win either. Kathryn Elizabeth leaps off the ship, into the harbor waters.