The cries of swashbuckling pirates erupt with a certain jauntiness in “The Privateer” as wily combatants battle for supremacy on the high seas. Their full-contact sword fights, done with invisible weapons and rendered credible by the cast’s visceral performances, are fairly entertaining in this new work by Transatlantic Love Affair that premiered Friday at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis.
Conceived by director Derek Lee Miller and created by an eight-member ensemble led by actors Heather Bunch, Allison Witham and Eric Marinus, “Privateer” unfolds like a live-action adventure, with a story heightened by the dramatic percussion of Dustin Tessier. The 90-minute production, fetching and a touch repetitive, relies more than most on a conspiracy of imagination with the audience. There are no sets to speak of. The actors use their bodies to convey doors, furniture and other props on a ship deck, a house and a tavern. The locales vary from South Carolina and New York to the Caribbean. But the troupe’s evocations are clear, and help to explain why the young, Ivey Award-winning company is so respected.
Since its founding in 2010, Transatlantic Love Affair has built an impressive body of “devised” works set in various worlds. It has explored myths (“Emilie/Eurydice”), immigration (“Promise Land”) and a love story between a fisherman and his seal wife (“The Ballad of the Pale Fisherman”).
Set in 1717, “Privateer” is inspired in part by two of history’s most notorious pirates, Sir Francis Drake and Blackbeard (played by Bunch and Witham).
The story cleaves to the romantic image of piracy that we see most often, including eyepatch-wearing seamen with quippy parrots on their shoulders (think the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise).
But as occasional news reports from the Horn of Africa remind us, the centuries-old practice of commandeering ships for booty remains a disturbing thing, not easily glossed over by cartoonish takes.
The show also is lacking in a deeper history. The booty plundered by pirates was not just precious metals and rum. Human cargo was an essential part of that trade.
That said, the ensemble, dressed stylishly by Mandi Johnson and lit with texture and rich emotion by Michael Wangen, does solid work. Bunch is commanding as the stomping sea captain, a figure of daring and charisma, even if it’s mostly bluff. Witham’s Blackbeard is equally clear to us, and vexing, too, as she funnels charm into a character with no moral compass.
The newcomers also stand out. John Stephens does nice work as a stolid, deadpan ship’s mate. China Brickey’s well-sketched characters include a somewhat clueless left-behind spouse and a no-nonsense bartender. Nora Montañez is powerful, too, as an authority figure who brooks no fools.
“Privateer,” which includes energetic sea shanties, also offers subtle commentary on today’s political news. In the show, the opposing pirate leaders are ill-suited for their positions. One is a faker who believes that he can pretend to know how to sail simply because he owns a ship. Another, committed only to plunder, has no core values. They take the people in their care on disastrous journeys.
At the end of it all, all we can say is that it was fun to watch.
612-673-4390 Twitter: @rohanpreston
Who: Conceived and directed by Derek Lee Miller for Transatlantic Love Affair.
When: Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Where: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 18.
Tickets: $25. 612-339-4944, illusiontheater.org.