"THE PRIVATEER" SAILS SMOOTHLY ON ADVENTUREHave money and a midlife crisis in the 1770s? Become a privateer.
By Lianna Matt
In a little under two hours, Transatlantic Love Affair (TLA) actress China Brickey was the ocean, a wife, an accountant-turned-first-mate, a doorway, a bar, a window, a desk and more in the world premiere of “The Privateer.” In a performance style sometimes coined as physical theater, the Ivey award-winning TLA brings an ocean of adventure, comedy and tragedy to Illusion Theater Nov. 3-18.
After a chaotic first scene, Brickey’s conversation as the clueless but doting, high strung wife with her husband Major Bevington (Heather Bunch) provides the light-hearted scene the audience can latch onto. The year is 1717, and Major Bevington—excuse us, captain now—has procured a sloop to sail the seas and become a privateer. The plan is simple: Bevington, in theory, gets the approval from the government of New York to become a privateer, a legal pirate; he and his hired crew defeats other pirates in marina battle glory; and they return with more riches and fame than they could imagine. The thing is, he knows nothing about sailing, the sea or fighting. Luckily, a seasoned sailor named Thomas makes sure that the captain doesn't get himself killed, whether it is because Bevington is challenging the wrong pirate or because his own crew is frustrated by his antics and commits mutiny.
Without props on the stage, the seven-person cast rotated as multiple characters and furniture, yet their fluidity made the role transitions one of the show’s highlights, if only from a logistical standpoint. The performers’ dedication made the New York dining room, a bar in the Bahamas and ships on the sea if not believable, then thoroughly enjoyable. The show’s script had humor to spare, but it was injected into the physical performances, too, with some meta-acting (“You know how to do a cyclone, right?”), some squeaky doors and more.
Bunch was the solid, constant thread that pinned down the whole play with her clueless bravado, but other standouts included core ensemble member Allison Witham with her many voices, body language and excellent comedic timing. In the corner of the stage was composer Dustin Tessier, whose percussion score matched so well, it became one with the acting. Really, though, the whole cast never missed a beat, nor did they miss a harmony during the pirate shanties that rang throughout the play.
The only time the smoothly ticking entertainment machine ever faltered was during one of the play’s more serious turns that tried to examine opposing characters’ motivations. However, that stilted moment was more than remedied by a surprisingly tender moment between Brickley as the accountant-turned-first-mate and perhaps the true protagonist of the show, Thomas, played by the ever-patient and down to earth John Stephens.
As outrageous as Bevington’s story seems to be, Director Derek Lee Miller (normally a core ensemble performer) got his inspiration from the real life of Stede Bonnet. Miller armed himself with weeks and weeks of research, and he and the rest of TLA started to build a script from nothing on Day One. In the end, maybe that collaboration is why everything is so seamless on stage; each member put their mark on the play. Whatever the case may be, “The Privateer,” helmed by Miller and, as the program states, “created by the ensemble,” brought audiences to the high seas of adventures and comedic misfortune.