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A Watery Fave

BackStage Theatre Company revives a feminist swashbuckler from the early days of the off-Loop theater movement.

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Bloody Bess: A tale of Piracy and Revenge BackStage Theatre Company

The June 2 death of theater legend Paul Sills called to mind the heady early days of the off-Loop movement he helped launch. The late 1960s and early '70s saw an explosion of low-budget, high-excitement companies like Sills's own Story Theater, Free Theater, Kingston Mines (birthplace of Grease), and the gender-bending Godzilla Rainbow Troupe.

Perhaps most exciting was the Organic Theater, whose artistic director, Stuart Gordon, was a Sills protege. The Organic specialized in fanciful, highly physical productions infused with the power of make-believe. Though it never enjoyed the New York success later achieved by Steppenwolf, it launched the careers of such notables as Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Bruce Young, Meshach Taylor, John Cameron Mitchell, Andre de Shields, and Gordon himself, who became a movie director, best known for the cult horror flick Re-Animator.

Gordon's shows often drew on literary sources, from Voltaire's Candide to Ray Bradbury's The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. But he was equally enthralled by classic genre films. His 1971 sci-fi trilogy Warp! (cowritten with former Reader critic Lenny Kleinfeld) paid tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s.

In 1974, the Organic came up with another Hollywood homage. Conceived by Gordon and scripted by ensemble members John Ostrander (later a writer of comic books, including the Star Wars: Legacy series) and William J. Norris, Bloody Bess: A Tale of Piracy and Revenge took its inspiration from swashbuckling adventure sagas like Captain Blood and The Black Swan. But, in typical Organic style, it put an irreverent and (at the time) innovative spin on the genre, viewing it through the prism of the women's liberation and black power movements.

The premise of Bloody Bess sounds remarkably like that of Disney's recent Pirates of the Caribbean series. Elizabeth Presberty, the beautiful but arrogant young daughter of a British colonial governor, is captured by a band of buccaneers whom she initially despises but eventually accepts as her comrades. But from there Bloody Bess takes a much darker approach. Elizabeth doesn't merely join the crew; she becomes its leader, killing off a male rival before agreeing to share power with an escaped black slave, N'gali. The pirate captain who takes her hostage is much less successful than Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow at escaping death, and the smug naval officer Elizabeth is expected to marry, Commodore Eaton, isn't merely unworthy—he's a treacherous murderer who rapes his betrothed before forcing her to marry him while she's bound and gagged. (Eaton comes to regret his abuse, admitting, "She's a better captain than she is a bedmate.")

One of my favorite theatergoing memories is of Organic actors swinging from ropes over my head in the original Bloody Bess, which was presented at the Uptown Center Hull House, now home of the Black Ensemble. In 2002 the play was mounted by the now-defunct Red Hen Productions, whose cramped black-box space was ill-suited to the sprawling displays of stage violence the play's creators intended. But the city-sponsored Storefront Theater downtown is a near-perfect venue for the show, and the BackStage Theatre Company's new staging takes advantage of that fact. With its high ceilings and catwalks, the Storefront allows director Geoff Coates's scurvy crew to swing from the rigging, run in and around the audience during their numerous battle scenes, and achieve some exciting—and occasionally gruesome—effects. One hapless character's throat is cut as he dangles upside down from a rope, and another is hanged. There are swordfights, fisticuffs, even death by blowgun, all accompanied by bloodcurdling cries and raucous bellows.

But Bloody Bess is also a meditation on the thirst for vengeance. Its protagonists give their lives to punish those who have wronged them, and the script asks us to consider whether their sacrifice is honorable or merely self-destructive. So it's important that the actors bring psychological as well as physical commitment to their roles. Eva Swan buries herself completely in Bess's unquenchable rage, hatred, and lust for revenge; Scott Graham takes obvious pleasure in Eaton's corruption; and Stephanie Repin (artistic director of the all-female stage combat troupe Babes With Blades) combines fierceness and vulnerability as Annie Bailey, the pirate ship's other female crew member.

As N'gali, Warren Phynix Johnson handles his ripe dialogue with aplomb. ("You are like a pomegranate," he tells Annie, "concealing a sweet fruit under a leathery cover.") Gregory Isaac brings depth and presence to the doomed pirate captain Levoisseur (the name is a twist on Levasseur, the buccaneer played by Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood). And David Skvarla tears up the stage as Levoisseur's burly, mutinous rival, Calico Jack Rackham. (There really was a Calico Jack, by the way, and he really did sail with two female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Reade.)

Sound effects and music are crucial elements in any good pirate production, and the Storefront's movie theater-quality sound system is a huge asset. Composer Tom Haigh's wonderfully bombastic incidental music evokes the scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Alfred Newman, while sound designer Miles Polaski fills the air with the squawking of seagulls, the roar of cannon fire, the rolling of waves against the hull, and the splash of bodies falling overboard. Rachel Sypniewski's rich-looking costumes evoke the story's late-16th-century setting, and scenic designer Heath Hays locates the action in and around the Caribbean by turning the stage floor into a map.

Sometimes playful and sometimes gripping, Bloody Bess combines brains with brawn—it's exciting enough to make even the most jaded viewer go "Arrrr!"v

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