World premiere adaptation takes on a harrowing, historic saga
|Pegasus Theatre Chicago presents|
Review by Duane Barnes
Rutherford’s Travels resembles an action movie filled with fights, shipwrecks, mutiny and requited love. Based on Charles Johnson’s award-winning novel “Middle Passage,” Rutherford’s Travels was adapted by Ilesa Duncan (also the director) and David Barr, III. Set in 1830, the opening scene takes place in New Orleans, where the main character, a young black man, Rutherford Calhoun (Breon Arzell), is recently freed by his master from a plantation up north. Rutherford’s young, full of spirit, and wants all that New Orleans has to offer – but he mistakenly makes his way by gambling, cheating and stealing, leading to trouble in the form of Papa Zerinque (Darren Jones), a New Orleans boss (he could prosper in Chicago). Papa controls much of the seamy underside of the city and is on to Rutherford’s game. Adding menace to Papa is his “enforcer” Santos (threateningly played by Osiris Khepera). In the meantime, Rutherford also meets a lovely young woman, Isadora (Naima Hebrail Kidjo) who, initially standoff-ish, develops a liking for him. Imbued with the spirit of the women’s movement to come in the next century, Isadora proposes marriage to Rutherford. He, feeling trapped by a potential marriage and the likelihood of Papa’s unpleasant punishment, executes a hurried escape on a sailing ship leaving port and bound for Africa. To his dismay, he discovers that this voyage is not to bring back a cargo of products, but to his horror, slaves.
His ship, The Republic, is a doomed vessel like the Pequod of Ahab’s time, un-seaworthy, with a cutthroat crew and a soulless captain named Falcon (Gary Houston). The ship somehow makes the initial crossing and picks up its human cargo. (For this reviewer, it was a punch in the gut when the slaves, chained together, are brought aboard The Republic. Chained slaves are in books and seen in movies but when you see them in the flesh on stage, the viewer’s reaction can be visceral. Mine was.)
Rutherford is fated to cross swords with the captain, the crew and the slaves. He is forced to make decisions that seem to have no positive outcomes and his body and spirit is wrenched time after time. He is not only making moral decisions, he is making ones that involve lives, others’ and his own. His constant tormentor is the captain, Falcon, who is played beautifully understated and cold, letting Rutherford and the crew know that the only way is Falcon’s way. He is calm-and deadly. The crew, made up of Squibb, the leader and a mean cuss (Ron Quade); Jackson (Andrew Malone), who’s ready to rumble; Cringle, always looking for an angle (Nelson Rodriguez, who also does a nice cameo as the master who releases Rutherford as a freeman). Finally there’s Tom (Heather Chrisler), a plotter and also first one up into the rigging when there’s a storm brewing, who is contemplating a mutiny in order to gain control of the ship and its cargo. Rutherford is in the middle. Does he side with his captain? The crew? Or the slaves with whom he feels a visceral connection?
The supporting cast fills their roles with zest adding to the sense of confusion that envelopes Rutherford. The sounds of raucous New Orleans and the storms that rock the Republic are a gift from sound designer Sarah Putts, helping to set the tone of the play. Josh Wroblewski’s lighting design also adds dimension, shinging brightly in New Orleans or forbiddingly in dark scenes aboard The Republic. Fight scenes (yes, there are fights) are professionally choreographed by Victor Bayona and Rick Gilbert. And the set is perfect in that it can fit a honky-tonk cabaret, a New Orleans wharf, the deck or the cabins of The Republic by changing a few props. Thank Elyse Balogh for this feat.
However, with all this talented support, I never connected with the lead character. I didn’t feel his worries, his fears, his confusion, his passion. It may have been that he was still feeling the weight of the massive amount of dialogue he carries. I’m hoping that, as those words become more and more Rutherford’s words rather than the actor’s, he’ll embody the emotions and the feelings will come through as well.
Rutherford’s Travels continues through December 4th at Chicago Dramatists, 773 N. Aberdeen (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $30 (students: $18, seniors: $25), and are available online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at PegasusTheatreChicago.org. (Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Joe Mazza
Breon Arzell (Rutherford Calhoun), Osiris Khepera (Santos, Diamelo, Riley), Gary Houston (Captain Falcon), Darren Jones (Papa Zerinque), Andrew Malone (Jackson, Ngonyama), Ron Quade (Josiah Squibb), Nelson Rodriguez (Cringle, Rev. Chandler), Tiffany Renee Johnson (Baleka, Almuseri God), Naima Hebrail Kidjo (Isadora, African Mother), Heather Chrisler (Tom, Meadows), David Fehr (McGaffin, Quakenbush)
behind the scenes
Ilesa Duncan (director, co-adaptor), David Barr III (co-adaptor), Shawn Wallace (composer, music director), Nicole Clarke-Springer (choreographer), Elyse Balogh (scenic design), Josh Wroblewski (lighting design), Melissa Perkins (costume design), Sarah Putts (sound design), Alec Long (props design), Victor Bayona, Rick Gilbert, R&D Choreography (violence design), Liam Fitzgerald (production manager), Beth Weinstock (stage manager), Joe Mazza, Brave Lux (photos)