The Privateer: an amusing, uneven swashbuckler

Transatlantic Love Affair, performing at Illusion Theater, through November 18

Nora Montañez, John Stephens, China Brickey and (back) Antonio Duke PHOTO CREDIT: Lauren B Photograph

If you consider yourself a Twin Cities theater devotee and haven’t seen a production from Transatlantic Love Affair, you must. Their unique approach to theater, with actors offering their bodies and voices as versatile replacements for physical sets, props, and sounds, provides for a vital and immediate theater experience. There isn’t anything quite like it.

So it is hard to criticize these talented artists, as even their misfires provide for aesthetically exciting shows. But alas, we are tasked with critiquing and critique we must. And on the whole, The Privateer (at Illusion Theater through November 18th) doesn’t quite come together.

The Privateer tells of well-heeled New York lunkhead Major Bevington, who is largely inspired by the real-life landowner-turned-pirate Stede Bonnet. After growing bored with domesticity and privilege, Bevington resolves to seek the glory and adventure of privateering for the Royal Navy. After being turned down by the Crown due to gross incompetence, he nevertheless decides to stay the course with his loyal assistant Higgins by his side, pays a large sum to an experienced seaman named Thomas to gather a crew, and sets sail to the Bahamas to loot contraband.

Director Derek Lee Miller opts to keep proceedings light and focuses on the swashbuckling mythos of piracy. Heather Bunch‘s turn as Bevington is broadly comic, marked primarily by an aloof vainglory that wouldn’t be out of place in a Saturday-morning cartoon. In this way, while it may be tempting to see an idiot leader who is operating out of his element as a stand-in for our current political reality–especially considering the litigious real estate dealings of Bevington– the show draws him instead as devoid of malice, jovially inconsiderate and self-obsessed despite there being real danger in his stupidity.

However, The Privateer’s jaunty approach does not suit its moments of gravitas, resulting in tragic elements feeling a bit out of place. The closest thing the show has to an emotional center is long-tenured seaman Thomas, who simply wants to make a living and is forced to fight to hold things together in the face of his captain’s ineptitude. John Stephens does an admirable job with the material to make this character sympathetic, but neither Thomas, nor the show’s other characters, are given enough backstory to make the question of their fates compelling.

Despite this, the show proves enjoyable due to its strong cast injecting lively humor and quirk to their roles. China Brickey is amusing as the ever-chipper, naive Higgins, but the highlight of the show is a very funny interpretation of Blackbeard from Allison Witham, which cleverly plays off the inflated lore of this historical villain’s deeds and once again proves she is top-tier talent.

At a high-level, the themes are intriguing–it is one of life’s greatest injustices that those born into wealth are granted power and influence regardless of merit. There is a real sense that Bevington has no concept of his idiocy or the weight of his decisions, partly because his sycophants fail to rebuke him. In the end, this story is one of class-conflict turned upside down–calling others to stop giving this meritless leader undue allegiance. As such, despite its sometimes clunky plotting, The Privateer is a fitting and canny product of its time.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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