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Bloody Bess

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Bloody Bess, Red Hen Productions. This 1974 melodrama puts a women's-lib spin on the Errol Flynn/Tyrone Power swashbuckler, a spin startling in its time. Conceived by Stuart Gordon and scripted by William J. Norris and John Ostrander, it tells how aristocratic Elizabeth Presberty is taken hostage by pirates and then becomes their leader--Bloody Bess, scourge of the high seas. Bess's transformation stems from her friendship with tomboyish crew member Annie Bailey--and from the women's shared hatred for the colonial governor who rapes Bess.

Created for the Organic Theater in its mid-70s heyday, during the troupe's residence at the Uptown Center Hull House's Lerner Theater, the show was designed to display the fabled ensemble's acrobatic and stage-combat skills, with pirates swinging from ropes above viewers' heads. Red Hen Productions' new black-box studio is ill suited to such sprawling stage action; the numerous scenes of noisy roughhousing with cutlasses, knives, guns, bare fists, and even a blowgun are ably choreographed by Brian LeTraunik but feel cramped on the tiny stage.

Yet whenever the shouting and scuffling die down, director Scott Cummins's revival does well by the script's meditation on the way vengeful obsession can warp the soul. Laura Scott Wade and Kathrynne Ann Rosen are first-rate as Bess and Annie; they and the solid all-male supporting cast obviously relish the play's blend of campy theatrics and grim tragedy--and their commitment is palpable.

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