Playwright: John Ostrander
and William J. Norris,
based on a concept by Stuart Gordon
At: BackStage Theatre Company at
The Storefront, 66 E. Randolph
Phone: 312-742-8497; $20
Runs through: July 20
'There is scarcely [ anyone ] who, at some period in life, has not wished [ they ] were a pirate' mused scholar-explorer A. Hyatt Verrill—an observation borne out in popular fantasy from Robert Newton's Long John Silver to Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. In 1973, Stuart Gordon, John Ostrander and William J. Norris—all members of a fledgling Chicago theatre group called the Organic Theatre Company then forging a reputation for athletic epics—decided that what the burgeoning off-Loop theater scene needed was a swashbuckling pirate yarn featuring a cutlass-swinging belle sabreur.
Our heroine, Elizabeth Presberty, soon to be known by the fearsome sobriquet 'Bloody Bess,' is an amalgam of several real-life historical figures—notably Mary Read and Anne Bonny. But though the play bearing her name encompasses many of the elements we have come to associate with its genre, the authors' times are reflected in its unmistakable populist ethos. What motivates the governor of Tabago's gently bred daughter, kidnapped and held for ransom by seafaring marauders, to engineer a rampage through the Caribbean colonies—assisted by that same outlaw band—is her realization that however cruel and crude her captors may be, the handsome English officer now in charge of her father's domain is far more corrupt than those he would declare 'criminals.'
Extravagant shipboard battles require fighting room beyond the resources of most non-equity theater troupes, but the BackStage Theatre Company is fortunate to have secured not only the spacious city-built black-box Storefront Theatre, but award-winning Geoff Coates as both its production and its violence director ( the latter title shared with David Skvarla ) . Under their guidance, the spectacle-driven narrative ( enhanced by Tom Haigh's original music, invoking vistas of limitless adventure ) delivers thrilling martial exhibitions showcasing the multicultural composition of the bandit privateers. And if the physical elements sometimes overpower the comic-book text ( a not-uncommon occurrence in shows of this nature ) , leading the actors to deliver every speech at snap-crackling intensity, what does that matter when you have brawny buccaneers, expatriate aristocrats, scrappy ( but soft-hearted ) hombras, exotic African fugitives and a good-woman-done-wrong uniting in a death-before-dishonor match against the WASP establishment? Haaargh! Pass the rum, matey!