That the pen is mightier than the sword is the dream of every English major, and also the theme of the Zachary Fernebok’s “Pirate Laureate” series, of which this is the second exemplar. It is also the dream of diplomats and lovers of peace everywhere, although its truth remains undetermined.
In the universe of the Pirate Laureate, however, verse is the determiner of versus, and a good haiku beats a broadsword every time. This is not as startlingly new as it sounds. In ancient Ireland, the poets, known there as satirists, could rhyme an enemy to death, and if they pronounced Firt Feled upon you, your days were numbered.
But things are a little more benign in the modern day pirate ship Chartreuse, where – appropriately for the Valentine’s season – Ruby the Lookout (Bradley Foster Smith) and Opal the Navigator (Megan Reichelt) are canoodling on the poop deck. Pirate Laureate Finn (Matthew McGee) revels in the news that his new poem has been accepted by Poetry Magazine. His lady love, Sandy the Intern (Kaylynn Creighton), having spent the last several nights involuntarily listening to it be composed, is less than thrilled. Captain Grayscale (Matthew Pauli) and First Mate Hue (Farrell Parker) round out the company. They are not romantic partners, but they have established a relationship of trust and – oh, I don’t know, however Captains and First Mates get along.
They are celebrating their triumph (see The Pirate Laureate of Port Town) over that evil dandy, Captain LaReif. But there is a Satan among the Sonnets, and he is Ray del Mar (Carlos Saldana), a poet and pirate and an aspiring – you probably guessed it already – King of the Sea. del Mar’s poetry is mighty: he summons a squid (Natalie Cutcher, as you have, believe me, never seen her) to carry Captain Grayscale away (the squid is mightier than the pen), and armed with the secret curses of the accursed pirate Blackboard, challenges Finn to a rhyming duel.
Finn’s verses make del Mar cry, but del Mar’s verses do worse – they give Finn writer’s block. It is no Firt Feled, but it sure fells Finn. Soon the remaining crew (sans Sandy, who with savvy secretes herself in a barrel) are in the brig. del Mar eventually finds the hidden crew member, and becomes so randy for Sandy that he promises to make her his queen, thus enraging the suddenly fumblemouthed Finn. As time passes, the crew slips over to del Mar’s side, done in by a combination of his poetry, their despair, and the possibility of escape or even betrayal once they are outside the brig.
In the meantime (there is always a meantime, a/k/a a Second act, in stories like this), Captain Grayscale finds himself on an island which is littered by an astonishing number of human skeletons. He has been brought there by the squid, Kalamara, who understands that by eating humans she will become more human herself, which is her objective. (Think of this the next time you order a steak). While there, he runs into his old enemy LeReif (Smith), who he thought dead; and also into his mother (Parker) who he also thought dead.
All right. You know what kind of story this is, don’t you? It’s a children’s story, dressed up with sophisticated adult conceits. You are not to be convinced the story is true, or real; or that the characters are real people – only that they are funny. The story is funny and the actors are funny (and, importantly, look like they’re enjoying themselves), and so everyone does his job. Parker and Smith are obliged to perform two different characters, and do so admirably; Parker, in particular, is pitch-perfect in her personation of a prototypical Jewish mother in the second Act.
I also liked Saldana and Cutcher, the two obvious villains of the piece. Fernebok writes some complexities into their characters, and both actors develop them nicely. del Mar is really a powerful wretch, but he has a playful side which, in Salada’s hands, doesn’t become malevolent. And if you can imagine a man-eating squid who is a little sympathetic, then you have Cutcher’s Kalamara.
THE PIRATE LAUREATE AND THE KING OF THE SEA
Feb 12 – March 1
Flying V Theatre at
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
Bethesda, MD 20815
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission and a brief pause
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 301 634.2270
That poetry has replaced violence as a mediator of conflict seems a pretty thin concept to build a series around, but so far Fernebok has done a good job. He obviously has storytelling chops, and he uses them to advantage throughout this production. There is a lot going on in this story, and the poetry device is used strategically, and to good effect. Director Jason Schlafstein moves things along at a nice clip, and Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr. creates two fine sets. Props, too, to props designer Andrea “Dre” Moore.
You might think – or, at least, I might think – that a show so carefree would end with a punch line. It doesn’t, though. Instead, the penultimate scene (the final scene is a brief enticement for episode three) concludes with a dirge, nicely sung by the whole cast and surprisingly moving. It serves to show that even in a land of fantasy and child’s play, there are always occasions of sadness, and for feeling grief.
The Pirate Laureate and the King of the Sea by Zachary Fernebok (who also, assisted by Brittany Graham, did the costume design) . directed by Jason Schlafstein, assisted by Daniel Mori, with Doug Wilder serving as associate director . Featuring Kaylynn Creighton, Natalie Cutcher, Matthew Pauli, Matthew McGee, Farrell Parker, Carlos Saldana, Megan Reichelt and Bradley Foster Smith. Scenic design by Jos. B. Musumeci Jr., scenic charge by Britney Mongold . Sound design: Neil McFadden . Lighting design: Kristin A. Thompson . Technical director: Michael Salmi, assisted by Andrew Berry . Fight choreography: Jonathan Ezra Rubin . Stage manager: Allie Herman, assisted by Sam Game . Produced by Flying V Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.