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Defiance Dares to Think Big

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The Pyrates

Defiant Theatre

at the Chopin Theatre

We live in a time that seems locked into an anti-Daniel Burnham mind-set. "Make no big plans" is the shibboleth that seems to guide too many of our theaters. There are exceptions, of course, and these give me hope for a more interesting tomorrow. The recent Court Theatre-Redmoon collaboration cheered me, though it was too bad so much inspiration was marshaled in the service of a play as well-known and often produced as Cyrano de Bergerac.

Given a choice between theater that plays it safe and theater willing to risk failing big, I'll go for the big failure every time. And nothing I've seen recently matches the daring invention and insane, messy ambition of Defiant Theatre's adaptation of George MacDonald Fraser's The Pyrates. Now in its 11th year, Defiant has attempted many genres and playwrights: Harold Pinter, Charles Ludlam, Mac Wellman, naturalism, camp, surrealism, classics, stage adaptations, and original works. Nothing seems to scare them. Huge casts? Complicated fight choreography? Unusual situations and extreme emotions? No problem.

The decision to produce Fraser's novel speaks volumes. A witty, literate, and exceptionally playful writer, Fraser is most famous for the Flashman books, a series of adventure stories purportedly "edited" by Fraser beginning in 1969 from the papers of dashing 19th-century British scoundrel Harry Paget Flashman. Fraser lifted the character from Tom Brown's School Days--Flashman is the school bully in Thomas Hughes's Victorian classic--and his series describes this reprobate's wild, glorious career after he's expelled for drunkenness.

There's not much angst or reflection in Fraser's merry yet cynical yarns, but there's lots of action. The Pyrates features a complicated plot about the theft of a crown, the division of the crown into six parts--one for each of the book's six pirate protagonists--and the efforts of a British gentleman, Avery, to recover the crown.

The book's length--400 pages--might have deterred others, but not adapters Justin Fletcher and Richard Ragsdale. So might its multiple characters and locations, spanning the globe from England to Madagascar to South America. Among the moments that some might perceive as difficult to stage are a face-off between the Spanish Armada and three pirate vessels, a battle with a giant octopus, and pirates swarming onto another vessel's deck.

Fraser's sense of humor requires a knowledge of both traditional literature and trash: The Pyrates draws equally on 18th-century literature and Hollywood swashbucklers, on British history and contemporary Anglo-American culture. The novel describes one character, a deadly "black pirate queen," as "looking like something out of [a] Marvel Comic." At another point she's compared to Eartha Kitt's version of Catwoman in the Batman TV series of the 60s. The book also has an imperialist slant unlikely to go down well in a postcolonial world. When it comes time to battle Britain's traditional high-seas enemy, the Spanish, the villainous pirates engage in a realpolitik alliance with the British Empire.

Fletcher, who directs, and Ragsdale leap in where most theater professionals would fear to tread. The result is a three-hour, three-act free-for-all with a cast of 31, a good two-thirds of whom act as all-purpose extras, playing members of the pirate, British, and Spanish navies with equal aplomb. One of the wonders of Fletcher's staging is that he's able to keep this mass of humanity moving without ever muddying the stage pictures. He had help, of course, and lots of it. The program for the show includes credits for two dance choreographers, one aerial choreographer, a puppet designer, a special-effects consultant, and a makeup artist.

As might be expected from the company that brought us Action Movie: The Play, Action Movie: The Play--The Director's Cut, and Sci-Fi Action Movie in Space Prison, the show features plenty of onstage battles. The sword fighting is exceptionally clean and well executed, thanks to fight choreographer David Woolley and his assistant, Geoff Coates, who also appears as the pirate Bilbo. In fact, on opening night the fight choreography was the only aspect of the production everyone seemed to have down pat. Lines were missed, a video meant to set the mood malfunctioned several times, and set pieces wobbled--including the two ship decks created for the show.

But you have to expect some degree of mess from a project that's both large and low budget. Messiness also seems to be a Defiant trademark: they'd rather do something just beyond their level of competence than turn out a production that's tight, polished, and dull. Every once in a while their ambition leads them to do work far worse than you'll see in any theater playing it safe: consider Defiant's dreadful take on the war on drugs in Dope. But none of the myriad small flaws here truly hurt the production. In fact the shaky sets make the fight scenes more vivid and seemingly more dangerous.

The show's pace is blessedly brisk, and the performances are generally good, though one Spanish lady's thick accent made me cringe. Blame for the stereotypes probably lies with Fraser, however, whose love of cartoonish characters frequently leads him in politically incorrect directions. At least the show didn't leave me feeling the way I used to after a day of temping--dying for some excitement, or at least a nap. I left The Pyrates wanting more--wishing it was the first movie of a double feature.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Krissy Shields, Justin Fletcher.

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