TheatreNOW is charging into summer with “The Gentleman Pirate,” a dinner show about the life and times of Stede Bonnet. The vivacious play is filled with local history, real-life adventures and accompanied by a fabulous menu.
TheatrewNOW artistic director, Zach Hanner, has penned a stage version of the highly un-orthodox pirate (Bonnet paid his crew salary? Really?). After years of writing children’s theatre, in 2013 Hanner debuted his first adult script at TheatreNOW—a baseball comedy titled “A Swing and A Miss.” “The Gentleman Pirate” becomes sort of a hybrid: It’s family-friendly in that none of the jokes are obviously R-rated, and much of the action is out of a Warner Bros. cartoon. Yet, it isn’t written to be a children’s show. The dialogue engages, and the situations are not dumbed down or glossed over.
We meet Bonnet (Cabot Basden) as a young man about to embark on a marriage made of misery. Arianna Tysinger’s portrayal of Mary Allamby succeeds in convincing the audience that Bonnet is completely justified in abandoning her for a life of piracy. After 5 minutes, a life of crime looks preferable to another second of her screeching and demanding nastiness. The possibility of capital sentence after a short career of an adventure-filled crime spree seems delightful over the thought of sharing her bed.
So in pursuit of adventure and fulfillment, Bonnet mortgages his plantation and employs the help of experienced seaman David Herriot (no relation to James Herriot, author of the “All Creatures Great and Small” books) played by Reid Clark. Clark brings calm, reason, basic management, and common sense to Bonnet’s second-in-command. He seems to have genuine concern and care for this eccentric but inexperienced leader. However, he fears the man who takes over their ship—Edward Teach better known as Blackbeard (Zach Hanner).
Hanner has long been a theatre mentor for young performers in the area with Journey Productions and Superstar Academy, to name a few. His rendition of Blackbeard comes as a pirate tutor and creates a nice rhetorical technique for exploring both Bonnet and Blackbeard, as well as the norms and mores of the pirate world. (Mumbly peg, anyone?) Anyone enamored with pirate culture will love this show. It explores the roles of notoriety and reputation in warfare. Hanner always has grasped marketing and the power of presentation. His knack comes through clearly in the script and in his performance.
Likewise, one of Hanner’s many projects is with the Irish band The Blarney Brogues. Much of the music in the show would please the Brogues’ groupies. “The Irish Rover” is a traditional Irish song that permeates the stage. As well, Craig Thompson (fellow Blarney Brogue) croons a song in the show titled “Hops and Barley”— a lovely ode to beer and its makers, perfect for a pub sing-a-long.
But the surprising song of the evening is Basden’s solo at the end. He projects the traditional song “The Parting Glass.” With an expert singing voice, his rendition is sweet and reflective. It explores a man knowing what has come and facing it with some regrets. He’s not so much concerned for his actions; rather, that his reign has to be over so soon. Basden is quietly funny onstage—he has just enough skittishness and silliness onstage to communicate the cushiness of his life in comparison to the others.
The play could easily become hokey pirates dancing across the stage, singing cheesy songs out of a Disney movie, but “The Gentleman Pirate” communicates both the seriousness and mortality of pirates’ work with the comradeship that fuels their life. That infectious energy proves essential for keeping the story moving forward.
The supporting cast of Thompson, Tysinger, Liz Bernardo, and Zeb Mims, who play children, townspeople, pirates, and government officials, brim with zest and verve at every turn. It would be hard to get a count on how many different characters this group plays, but the show wouldn’t work without the controlled schizophrenia that they bring to it.
Of course, for locals the show gets more interesting once it leaves the Caribbean and sets sail for Topsail Island and the Cape Fear River. When you grow up around here, Blackbeard is a constant on people’s lips, but Bonnet and his unique approach to adventuring was new information for me. As an employer I can see where Bonnet’s business plan was fundamentally unfound, and his sense of management woefully lacking—but I think his heart was in the right place in an odd sort of way. His eventual arrest happens in our Cape Fear River, and it changes the way you think about him when you realize he met his fate just a few blocks away.
A show about pirates could be bloody, gory and make one lose her appetite. Not this one. The gore is offstage, and the fight scenes are more about the tactics leading up to the actual battles. The propensity for detail rather than spectacle compels us who don’t sail or regularly attempt to take over peaceful, ocean-going cargo vessels.
The cast is so active and captivating, one builds up an appetite just watching them. The menu is one of the best from Chef Denise Gordon at TheatreNOW. Hominy cake or salad with roasted onion vinaigrette makes for the opening course. The salad combines the sweetness from the corn with the tanginess of the vinaigrette. (I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.) The sangria aids in the digestion process.
The main course of seafood stew sounds like it could be mushy and thick, but it’s actually well-textured, with four luscious shrimp, about 15 scallops and eight muscles in a light, saffron tomato broth, with shredded vegetables. Gordon comments that the menu is built around the broth for the stew. Savory, filling and powerful on the palate, it converts even those not inclined to soupy renderings. A perfect ending comes with the Keg-o-Rum cake in a pineapple-ginger sauce.
I think the seafood stew is a good metaphor for the whole show; it is unexpected and so much better than hoped for. For a wonderful family-friendly evening that showcases local history and leaves everyone sated with the decadent meal, don’t miss “The Gentleman Pirate.”
The Gentleman Pirate
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10th St.
Fri.-Sat., June 20th-21st, 27th- 28th; July 4th-5th, 11th-12th, 7 p.m. • Tickets: $24-$38