First Folio gleefully finds its sea legs
|First Folio Theatre presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Swarthy pirates flashing rapiers, saucy wenches and ridiculously coiffed villains. In all, there’s much to applaud in Captain Blood. David Rice’s adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 adventure novel is a fine romp over land and sea, and an equally excellent antidote to the mid-winter blues that invariably hang heavy over February. Punctuated by self-aware humor, pointed political commentary and a whole lot of pleasingly taut, hairy pirate abs, the show proves that First Folio is in fine fettle and that director Janice L. Blixt has her sea legs when it comes to helming a sea-going story.
A bit of context: Captain Blood is set primarily during the 17th century reign of James II, one of the worst kings ever to rule Britannia. The best thing about James II’s rein was his ouster by William of Orange, who led a populist revolutionary charge after the Brits finally became fed up with years of James’ tyrannical nincompoopery.
Rice never gets heavy-handed with Captain Blood – he certainly doesn’t name names, so neither will we. That said, there are pointed parallels between James and the current-day Mango-in-Chief. Late in the second act opening night, a smattering of mid-dialogue applause broke out after a couple of pirates started ruminating on the wisdom of maybe putting women in charge (of England and basically everything else), since men have been basically making a hash of it for centuries.
Still, Captain Blood is a seafaring lark, not a piece of agitprop. First and foremost, it’s straight-up cracking fine storytelling. We first meet Dr. Peter Blood (Nick Sandys) as he’s on the auction block, being sold as a slave to a plantation in the Caribbean. Slavery is Blood’s sentence for treason, a charge that came about after he came upon rebels bleeding in the streets and tied off their wounds.
Blood’s new owner is one Colonel Bishop (Aaron Christensen), a largely uneducated bully and fop who is defined by his cruelty and the care he so obviously lavishes on his hair. When Bishop gets angry, his persnickety ringlets quiver like cinnamon pudding. Not so amusing is the bullwhip he uses to flay the skin from anyone who makes him angry.
But Colonel Bishop’s rule over the plantation isn’t quote absolute. His niece, Arabella Bishop (Heather Chrisler), is as kind and intelligent as uncle is dunderheaded and barbarous. Arabella is also adept with a sword, and more than holds her own when warring Spaniards invade. She also keeps up her end of conversations with Captain Blood as the two banter like a 1600’s version of Maddie and David in “Moonlighting.”
From Bishop’s plantation, Captain Blood moves onto the briny deep, where the title character goes full-pirate, casting aside any pretense of trying to live within the rules of lawful society. At sea, the plot becomes a rollicking picaresque of kidnappings, storms, cannon fire, all-hands-on-deck sword fights and (of course) stolen kisses. Blixt keeps the pace snappy and the cast fires on all cylinders throughout.
The role of dashing hero fits Sandys like a bespoke suit. He’s got the Brooding Handsome Man thing on lock, and a deadpan delivery worthy of Bond. He also makes elaborate feats of derring do look as smooth as a hot knife through butter.
Christensen’s arch-villain is also heaps of fun. There are several truly amusing moments when Latin quips are bandied about, and Colonel Bishop starts to suspect that everyone in the room is smarter than he is. You can see both the sneaking alarm and the start of a childish tantrum mounting in his aspect. It is always satisfying seeing a bully unnerved, and Christensen delivers just that.
Chrisler’s Arabella Bishop is strong and sassy and a complete departure from the helpless damsels-in-distress that usually populate pirate epics. Rice hasn’t found a solution for the fact that she’s a slave owner though. The happily-ever-after-unless-you-are-a-slave ending is a problem here, and darned if I know a way around it short of rewriting Sabatini’s entire book.
Captain Blood’s not-so secret weapon lies in a double-cast Kevin McKillip. As the preposterously named Hagthorpe, he’s a wildly enthusiastic but hilariously incompetent narrator who can’t detangle himself from laborious exposition to save his life. McKillip also plays Don Alan de Panadero, a Spanish pirate with manners more flowery than a prom queen’s funeral and a wardrobe swishier than an industrial-strength car wash. McKillip has a long and sublimely silly history working as a clown, and he brings everything he knows to the fore. For both roles.
Where Captain Blood stumbles slightly is in following the “show-don’t-tell” edict of showbiz. There are fight scenes aplenty on stage, but there are also many action-packed escapades that the audience just hears about, as characters stare into the distance while explaining what they’re watching. To really do justice to the endless stunts and spectacle the story demands, you’d need a cast of thousands, and a budget to match. Further, some of the fight sequences that we do see aren’t quite up to speed – there’s a glint of hesitancy to some of them, and hesitancy is a killer it comes to scenes that literally dance on the edge of a blade.
The action plays out on a massive timber-and-rope ship skeleton masterfully crafted by scenic designer Angela Weber Miller. Miller has created an ingenious way to stage people falling (or being tossed) overboard – no matter how many times it happens, it’s funny as heck. The set doubles as a screen for Erin Pleake’s projection design, which takes the audience from leafy plantation, to bustling town to ocean swells. There were some notable hiccups with the projections opening night, but like the hesitancy in the fight scenes, they’ll probably vanish as the run continues.
Alexa Weinzierl’s costumes are an elaborate mix of tattered leathers and velvet fripperies. Memorable details are everywhere: Lord Julian Willoughby (Sam Krey) is a preening peacock of a man who literally has peacock feather in his tricorn. A pirate named Ogle (Jaq Seifert) wears breeches with a handy ale tankard buckled to them.
Rice has also penned some worthy sea chanteys for Captain Blood, rousing songs that make you want to drink rum and learn about rigging. Christopher Kriz’ original music and sound design brings the tunes to life, and provides an audio undertow that keeps Captain Blood rolling with momentum from start to finish.
Captain Blood continues through February 26th at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 31st Street, Oak Brook (map), with performances Wednesdays at 8pm, Thursdays 3pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 4pm & 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $29-$39 (seniors and students $3 off), and are available by phone (630-986-8067) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at FirstFolio.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos courtesy of David Rice
Nick Sandys (Captain Blood), Heather Chrisler (Arabella Bishop), Aaron Christensen (Colonel Bishop, Harper), Austin England (Gardner, Pitt), Christopher W. Jones (Wolverston), Sam Krey (Lord Julian Willoughby), Kevin McKillip (Hagthorpe, Don Alan de Panadero), Jennifer Mohr (Mary Tral, Dr. Whacker), Almanya Narula (Don Esteban, Mallard), Jaq Seifert (Ogle, Governor Steed), Chris Vizurraga (Plummer, Don Diego).behind the scenes
Janice L. Blixt (director), David Rice (adaptor, photos), Kevin McKillip (assistant director), Nick Sandys (fight director), Angela Weber Miller (scenic designer), Greg Freeman (lighting designer), Christopher Kriz (original music and sound design), Alexa Weinzierl (costume design), Erin Pleake (projection design), Scott Leaton (props), Amy Creuziger (stage manager), Sarah West (assistant stage manager)