Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
When I first read about Pyrates–the story of 18th century pirates (using the archaic spelling) as a motley band of gender and racially varied buccaneers–I envisioned a lark, freewheeling play on stereotyped pirate motifs, replete with arch anachronisms and low bawdiness. Turns out, I was far off base on that one. Pyrates is based, in part, on historical truths, including the reality that pirate crews often comprised gender and racial diversity. As the play enfolds, that seems patently sensible, as individuals who found their way to piracy were often those on the fringes of society who were not accepted in their traditional communities.
Captain Henry Morgan, once the most feared plying the Caribbean Sea who died a very wealthy, slave-owning man as Governor of the British colony of Jamaica, is a central character. The story spins around a young, gender-fluid pirate named Tanith, part of a crew of sailors impressed into service on a Spanish ship by led by Captain Vidal. Among others, Tanith's mother, Trix, has also been pressed into service on the ship along with a French sailor named Bouchere. When mutiny is plotted against Vidal, Tanith and Bouchere emerge as leaders of different factions. Tanith wants take over the ship, imprison Bouchere, head to Jamaica, and turn Vidal and the ship over to Governor Morgan. In exchange the Governor would issue Tanith a letter of Marque, a document that turned pirates into privateers, whose attacks on merchant ship, theft of cargo, and imprisonment of crews were no longer called crimes, but done in service to their king, a way for pirates to go "legit." Vidal proposes killing Bouchere and then scoring a treasure haul big enough to retire on, and to return to the wife and child he left behind.
Tanith prevails, and the remainder of the play's two acts presents an account of the duel of wills between Tanith and Captain Morgan, and the dangerous mission Morgan assigns to Tanith as a way of proving mettle and earning the coveted letter of Marque. Trix, whose affirmation of life has enabled her to survive a host of dangers and treachery, serves as a moral compass for Tanith, while a translator, Corbin, sent by Morgan to aid Tanith in the attack on a Spanish treasure ship, demonstrates conflicting ambitions. The end follows the lines of historical record, at least as concerns the infamous Morgan, referring back to a line spoken earlier in the play, that "memory gets owned, but history gets interpreted," challenging the audience to interpret the surprising bits of history laid out before us.
The actors showed commitment and ensured that none of these characters play as mere "types." Joyce was wonderful as Morgan, bragging about living a life that allowed him to become both fat and old, which he convinces us are quite desirable aspirations. Taelyn Gore drew in our rapt attention as Tanith, revealing the pensive and courageous parts of Tanith's character in equal measure. Meri Golden, an actor I have never seen make a false move, is again marvelous, this time as the bawdy survivalist, Trix. Alec Berchem was splendid as Bouchere. In a scene where his life is imperiled, I felt near compelled to jump on stage and rescue him myself, so real were his protestations. Joshua McCauley as Corbin and John Goodrich as Vidal did fine work to bring their respective characters to life.
Stone had Pyrates in the works in the "before times," so he had time to develop the piece before bringing it to an audience. For a new work, it did have a polished feel, though the bare-bones (as opposed to skull and crossbones) staging allowed it to also have a rough edge, in keeping with its subject matter. There were sweet and effective touches, such as a pair of chess games played out between Morgan and Tanith, repositioning themselves to gain the upper hand in their negotiations as they repositioned their chess pieces.
The play was performed on a large thrust stage, surrounded on three sides by a single row of seats, accommodating a full house of about thirty-six. Michaela Lochen's amazingly simple but wonderfully evocative set consisted of three boat hooks hung from the ceiling, each with a pair of heavy ropes that, when tossed down and tied to either side of the stage, became the perimeter and rigging of a ship at sea. A large barrel along with a couple of smaller barrels and several wooden crates (from which props are handily drawn throughout the show) were rearranged as needed to create a ship's deck, Morgan's office, a rough dockside tavern, and other settings.
Chelsea Wren compiled costumes–compiled, as they seemed put together from the treasures of local thrift shops–which made totally believable pirate garb, though the no-hold barred costume worn by Brian Joyce as prosperous Captain Morgan seemed to have been truly designed, as was the luxe coat that marked Tanith's transition from renegade pirate to Morgan's emissary. Mark Kieffer's lighting drew focus and created the necessary effects, including a startling moment of shipboard distress, aided by sounds from four musicians who accompanied the cast as they sang traditional pirate shanties while changing sets, which consisted mainly of climbing a rolling staircase to lower or raise the ropes. The robust musical interludes smoothed the transitions, but moreover provided both cultural and historic context for the story being played out.
Sadly, I was unable to make the first week of Pyrates's two week run, and cancelled performances due to excessive heat (the rehabbed old fire house venue apparently lacks air conditioning), I attended on closing weekend, so you will be reading this after the Pyrates ship has sailed away. It was a worthy last hurrah for a scrappy company that never failed to imbed their work with imagination and intelligence. I hope that in some future season I find my way to Chicago and discover that Theatre Coup d'Etat has risen anew. There is certainly a great deal of life left in James Napoleon Stone's artistic vision.
Pyrates, a Theatre Coup d'Etat production, played June 16, 2022 through June 26, 2022, at Old Firehouse 24, 4502 Hiawatha Avenue, Minneapolis MN. It is the last production by Theatre Coup d'Etat in the Twin Cities. For information go to www.theatrecoupdetat.com.
Playwright, Director and Stage Manager: James Napoleon Stone; Music Directors: Ben Larson, Reed Reimer; Scenic and Props Design: Michaela Lochen; Costume Design: Chelsea Wren; Light Design: Mark Kieffer; Fight Director: Adam Scarpello.
Cast: Alec Berchem (Bouchere), Kaz Fawkes (Bones), Meri Golden (Trix), John Goodrich (Vidal), Taelyn Gore (Tanith), Brian Joyce (Morgan), Joshua McCauley (Corbin).
Singers/Musicians/Sailors/Soldiers: - Clare Boyd, Jay'd Hadberg; Oliva Hanz, Allie Levandoski, Jeff A. Miller, Ze'ev O'Rourke, Vee Signorelli, Siri Ashley Wright, Ze'ev O'Rourke.