Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
If you have seen Transatlantic Love Affair's work, you know that either you love it or you don't. Those who do (I include myself among them) are won over by their pared down staging, free of scenery, though greatly abetted by stage lighting and well-conceived costumes, in which everything needed is created by company members, singly or in cleverly grouped tableaux, taking on the attributes of such phenomena as a bureaucrat's desk, a saloon bar and its swinging doors, a ship's cabin, a mule train, or a mainsail. Together they create a panorama of ocean waves crossing the stage, with a ship seen bobbing up and down amid the swells. To the converted, their work brims with simplicity, ingenuity and innocence. This, and not high priced sets and technological tricks, are the heart of a story.
But, then, the story is still the core. The Privateer is the tale of Martin Bevington, a well-healed landlubber smitten with the adventure of piracy and the high seas. Something like Alonso Quixano's fashioning himself into the virtuous knight Don Quixote, with his friend Sancho Panza taking the role of his faithful squire, Martin makes of himself a ship's captain, dragging along his loyal manservant Higgins, whom he makes first mate. The difference, though, is where Don Quixote tried, however vainly, to actually take action, Martin takes for himself only the air of glory, casting off to others all of the actual work, which he admittedly has no idea how to perform.
Martin's intent is to stay on the right side of the law by becoming a privateer rather than an outright pirate. A privateer was a private individual granted a commission from the king, known as a letter of marque, empowering him to carry on hostilities against foreign vessels at sea, including the capture of a ship's crew and its cargo. The privateer would then be entitled to a large share of the bounty. However, when Martin does not meet the requirements for receipt of a letter of marque, he becomes incensedafter all, he is a proper gentleman, what more could they ask forand decides to get on with his adventure under the pretense of being a bonafide privateer. Who would ever doubt him?
He gets away with it for a while, acquiring a second-rate sloop, a crew of malcontents, and a bevy of encounters, each of which increasingly demonstrates how unsuited he is to call himself the captain of a ship. The script, devised collaboratively by the company, goes overboard to make Martin a ninny, such as having him point up to what he calls "that sheet thingy," referring to the ship's sail. The crew are ready to bolt until one among them, Thomas, emerges as a leader. Thomas wins the crew over by plotting with them to put up with their ridiculous captain, and once they take in a haul of booty, claim it for themselves. Yet, Thomas appears to be honorable in dealing with Martin, and even more so with Higgins, who is totally at a loss as first mate and relies on Thomas to do keep the ship afloat.
Martin maintains his posture as a ship's Captain, despite his complete ignorance of any aspect of nautical work and his complete unwillingness to sully his own hands. With pronouncements such as his pledge to "Make the Empire strong again," he sounds very much like a current occupant of the White House, matching his ignorance with his belief that it makes no difference as long as he maintains his façade of authority. Martin's ploy runs afoul, as we know it must, when he is faced with the sinister pirate Blackbeard and his henchman, Black Caesar.
The Privateer spins a good yarn, told with wit and humor, and enhanced with a number of rousing sea chanties and pirate tunes performed by the crew to keep their spirits aloft. It does at times feel a bit repetitious in its mid-section, and could probably be trimmed by fifteen minutes. The theme of the perils of false leadership is obvious, especially when followers know the leader to be false but go along anyway, thinking there is profit in it for them.
Derek Lee Miller, a TLA core ensemble member, directs the company for the first time. Miller maintains their gift for synchronized movements and formations that become the backdrop for the story. One concern, however, is that at times the actors are positioned in ways that make it difficult to hear them speak, a problem magnified by the sometimes overly fussy period accents.
Clearly, the company has a great time playing these rascally characters, with Heather Bunch most visible as the fool-hearty Martin Bevington. Bunch portrays Martin with the requisite pomposity and cluelessness. China Brickey captures the hapless Higgins, weighed down by his unwavering loyalty. John Stephens makes Thomas the most complex and interesting character, the only one who seems capable of making reasoned and moral choices. Allison Witham captures Blackbeard's snaky deceptiveness and Antonio Duke makes Black Caesar utterly loathsome. Eric Marinus and Nora Montañez complete the company, and the entire cast works beautifully together in TLA's trademark style of physical theater.
Throughout The Privateer, musician Dustin Tessler accompanies the action with drums and percussion, a constant and inventive soundscape to back the narrative. Mandi Johnson has designed whimsical costumes for this band of rogues and gentlemen out of their element, and Mike Wangen's stage lighting provides the ambience for storms, battles, and other moments of high adventure.
The Privateer is a slight entertainment with a small but earnest message at its core. It does not have the depth of feeling found in some of the company's past productions, such as These Old Shoes, Pale Fisherman, Ashland, and last season's Sweet Land, but in return, it delivers wholesome comedy and adventure. Those who relish TLA's style of play-making will heartily enjoy it. Those who are unfamiliar with the company are advised to try setting sail with The Privateer.
The Privateer continues through November 18, 2017, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $25.00 Thursday - Saturday, Pay what you want on Sunday, Student and senior pricing available. For tickets call 612- 339-4944 or go to illusiontheater.org.
Conceived and Directed by Derek Lee Miller; Created by the Ensemble; Composer: Dustin Tessier; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Designer: Mike Wangen; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Stage manager: Sarah Bauer; Production Manager: Sarah Salisbury; Technical Director: Aaron Shoenrock.
Cast: China Brickey (Mrs. Bevington/Higgins/Ensemble), Heather Bunch (Martin Bevington/ Ensemble), Antonio Duke (Black Caesar/Ensemble), Eric Marinus (Ensemble), Nora Montañez (Ensemble), John Stephens (Thomas/Ensemble), Dustin Tessier (Percussionist), Allison Witham (Blackbeard/ Ensemble).