Transatlantic Love Affair’s new show, now playing at Illusion Theater, is set on the high seas circa 1717. If you were hoping The Privateer would supply some good old-fashioned swashbuckling action to help you take your mind off today’s headlines, though, sorry: This fictional story of an inexperienced sea captain who gets in way over his head turns out to bear some very pointed similarities to the terrifyingly true story of the man presently steering our ship of state.
Director Derek Lee Miller was also inspired, he explains in a program note, by the real-life Stede Bonnet, a “vain, oblivious, incompetent rich man who decided to become a pirate.” Bonnet became the basis for the character of Captain Bevington (Heather Bunch), a shady businessman who buys a ship and convinces its crew to join him on what they hope will be a quick and uneventful foray to the Bahamas.
Bevington isn’t properly a pirate, he tells the crew: He’s a privateer, a man given official permission to engage in maritime warfare. At first, the (not technically) piracy seems to go pretty well, as the crew luck into an unexpectedly easy conquest. Things get more complicated, though, when Bevington cuts a deal with a real pirate who goes by the apt name of Blackbeard (Allison Witham). This duplicitous schemer’s real name isn’t Putin, though it might as well be.
The Privateer is a more broadly comedic play than the typical Transatlantic Love Affair offering, and it’s rich in character-driven humor. Bunch’s broad style is a perfect fit for the buffoonish Bevington, who contrasts not only with the tough and savvy Blackbeard but also with an experienced, loyal sailor (John Stephens) who comes to regret advising his peers to cast their lots with the dangerously inept ship owner. The company’s best catch, though, is the effortlessly expressive China Brickey, whose warm and detailed portrayal of Bevington’s right-hand man is key to the story’s ultimate poignancy.
Are there rousing sea chanteys to be heard along the way? Is the Atlantic wet? Live instrumental accompaniment is provided by Dustin Tessier, who shakes a surprisingly wide range of sounds out of a drum kit stationed at stage right. In the company’s trademark set-less style of physical theater, the sea battles can be a little challenging to follow, but fight choreographer Annie Enneking helps ensure that the close combat feels visceral.
While the play feels thematically close to home, it also evokes a sense of escape. For all the dastardly intrigue and hair-raising confrontations, the best moments in The Privateer come during quiet conversations between pairs of characters, as subtle cues create a sense of a gently rocking ship against the expansive sky, illuminated by lighting designer Michael Wangen. A red sky at night is a sailor’s delight—and ours.
528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612-339-4944; through November 18