Bloody Bess was conceived by Stuart Gordon in 1974 for his Organic Theatre Company, in those days listing among its personnel such present-day luminaries as Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz. More than two decades later, this legendary Chicago classic, written by John Ostrander and William J. Norris, is enjoying a revival under the auspices of Red Hen Productions.
This swashbuckling tale of murder on the high seas in the "golden age of piracy" recounts the story of Miss Elizabeth Presberty, imprisoned and held for ransom by pirates until she discovers her "rescuers" to be even more corrupt than her captors—a revelation that transforms her into a ruthless virago thirsty for revenge on the duplicitous Reynard Eaton, an ambitious naval officer not above withholding medication from the dying Governor Presberty or forcing marriage on his daughter ( after raping her, of course ) . The freebooters who assist her include another woman, one Annie Bailey, in addition to an African ship's captain calling himself Jesu N'Gali.
The 1974 production was staged in the arena-sized Beacon Street Hull House auditorium ( now home to Black Ensemble ) and featured heroic fight choreography by J.D. Martinez. In 2002, director Scott Cummins and fight coordinator Brian LeTraunik faced challenges in adapting this action-packed fantasy to a storefront stage measuring only 30 by 20 feet with a 15-foot ceiling.
Mary Shen Barnidge: The first production had fighters sliding down ropes and swinging cleavers only inches away from front-row spectators. What changes did you have to make in your staging?
Brian LeTraunik: While it would have been interesting to replicate the original fights, I had to tailor our fights to the abilities of the actors and the limitations of the space. The violence had to be more contained to ensure that both the performers and the audience are safe at all times.
Scott Cummins: The small space also has its advantages. We can get extremely loud without having to use [ artificial ] amplification but we can also speak softly and still be heard clearly. This intimacy makes for a visceral, as well as intellectual, audience response.
MSB: Some of the play's characters are based on actual people—Mary Reed and Anne Bonny captained their own pirate vessels in 1719, along with Calico Jack Rackham. How closely do you adhere to historical period in your interpretation?
BL: According to Stuart Gordon, the real-life personalities were a jumping-off point for the story of two fictional women pirates. I think the play is more indicative of what most audiences THINK pirates in the Caribbean were like.
SC: Other directors might have camped it up more, but this story works as straight melodrama, too, with the humor arising out of the characters, rather than the actors commenting on them.
BL: I looked to the swashbuckler films of the 1930s and 40s for the fights, but I also wanted to evoke the brutal, gritty existence the pirates would have endured.
MSB: Is there any difference in the way the "outlaw" pirates and Eaton's "gentlemen" fight?
SC and BL: Not much.
BL: N'Gali fights in a more fluid Eastern style to distinguish him from the Europeans. The pirates' technique is mostly hack-slash-and-bash, and the higher-born characters are slightly more refined in their swordplay. But in the heat of battle, all of that goes out the window and survival instinct kicks in.
MSB: How did you go about choosing and assigning the weapons to be used in the play?
BL: Eaton and his men mostly fight with rapiers, and the pirates with daggers and pistols. The period of the play dictates what weapons will be used—obviously, if something didn't exist at that time in history, you'll have a hard time justifying its appearance. The script requires some things, too—for example, Bess has to shoot someone in the face at one point. But assessment of the character's personality is mostly how I decide who fights with what.
MSB: Are all your actors trained in theatrical fighting?
BL: The majority of them are trained, and those that aren't, or that don't have as much experience, are still able to make a simple sequence look really dazzling.
SC: Stage Combat, with or without training, is ACTING. I can't emphasize that enough. Each move is choreographed with character motivation in mind, just like in any play. This play happens to have a lot of people killing and being killed in it, that's all.