John Stephens, Antonio Duke, Heather Bunch, Nora Montañez, China Brickley, Allison Witham, and Eric Marinus in Transatlantic Love Affair’s The Privateer. Photo by Lauren B Photography.
If you’re a scholar of high seas piracy, you might not like everything that you see in Transatlantic Love Affair’s The Privateer. The piece is engaging, dynamic, and very humorous – and plays fast and loose with its facts. The Privateer is essentially a parody of the life of the pirate Stede Bonnet, and in typical TLA fashion was created by the ensemble from a provided scenario.
A basis in fact is a good start for any historical fiction. Most of the great series about Age of Sail sea battles do so, with the extraordinary adventures of real-life ship captains like Cochrane, Pellew, and Hoste underlying the fictional adventures of Horatio Hornblower, Alan Lewrie, Jack Aubrey, and others. In each, however, it is an essential element that the constructed narrative and characters become something compelling in their own right, such that reality does not outstrip fiction. This is not the case in The Privateer, where the real-life adventures of Stede Bonnet are more interesting than the fictional analogue you see onstage. A lack of experience at sea not withstanding, the real-life Bonnet was also considerably more competent than his analogue in The Privateer.
This leads to an interesting question: what is The Privateer and what is its reason for existing? The adventures of Bonnet’s analogue Captain Bevington (Heather Bunch) are too divergent with history to be good historical fiction, and too stylized to evoke the deep emotional explorations of many of the company’s past works. To call it an exploration, as the show’s marketing copy does, would highlight its dissonances with reality. Better to disregard the historical context entirely, and call it a parody romp of a play riffing on pirate legends. If its reason is thus to entertain, there is no doubt that The Privateer is a success.
Half of what makes this show – like other TLA productions – so engaging is seeing how the cast creates the sense of set and setting entirely through physicality and dynamically generated sound. (Listen for the door creaks, try to guess who did each one, and enjoy Dustin Tessier’s drum accompaniment.) The ensemble members slip smoothly from one role to the other, from which the performances of Bunch, Allison Witham, and China Brickey especially stand out. The fights, choreographed by Annie Enneking, sparkle – especially given the small number of actors available to be killed. As directed by Derek Lee Miller, who also created the show concept, the progression of the plot never drags – while taking enough time for the audience to develop some feelings for the characters.
The closing scene of The Privateer is its most puzzling aspect. The scene is seemingly crafted to show Bevington taking a personal reality check, realizing what a callous disregard for reality has cost him and others. It is neither satisfying nor amusing, being played for a poignancy mostly lacking in the rest of the work; it’s also one of the scenes most out-of-sync with historical events. Whether this was intended as some commentary on contemporary events is unclear, but it is oddly the most forgettable part of an otherwise entertaining performance.
The Privateer plays through November 18 at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, MN.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.