Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
I confess that I don’t quite understand the current kiddy mania for all things piratical. But be that as it may, right now everyone loves pirates and so Shakespeare and Company is cashing in on the craze with their first-ever original free family show on the Rose Footprint stage – The Mad Pirate and the Mermaid. Actually, cashing in is probably the wrong phrase to use when referring to a free show, but you are encouraged to fork over your booty (pirate talk for cash) to the pirates at the door as you leave (suggested maximum donation: Eleventy billion dollars) so some small amount is raked in at each performance. If they ever get that eleventy billion they’ll be sitting pretty.
Free family fun on the Rose Footprint has become an annual tradition for ShakesCo, and a very fine one indeed. Previous years have seen freely adapted versions of old chestnuts like Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters and Moličre's Scapin, in which the source material was cheerfully ignored and updated at will. They were both easily the funniest and freshest comedies on stage in their respective seasons.
This year Michael Burnet, who memorably and hilariously played the lead in Servant of Two Masters, has written an entirely original play. It proves that Burnet is a much funnier actor than he is a writer, and that there is rarely any sense in reinventing the wheel. What makes people laugh ‘til they pee their pants has not changed since the first homo erectus slipped on a banana peel (actually, people didn’t wear pants then, but I’m sure they peed anyway.) The Mad Pirate and the Mermaid lacks the manic energy and crude, rude slapstick humor of previous years.
Burnet has overcomplicated his plot which leads to long stretches of dialogue and exposition during which nothing much happens, funny or otherwise. During some of this time the very pretty and curvaceous Samantha Cullen provides pleasant visual distraction draped across the stage in her mermaid get-up, but mostly it’s just dull.
Instead of one plot we have about seventeen, which is almost the number of characters the ten actors play. Shakespeare & Company can be counted on to present talented and well trained performers, and this is no exception. The problem is not the actors, it’s the material.
So, as you may have guessed, there’s a mad pirate Prettyboy Bart (Jamie Greenland) and a mermaid named Marina (Cullen). The Mad Pirate sails the Circe’s Revenge with his motley crew: Diego the Damned (Dan Kurtz), Hubert “Poop Deck” Dawkins (Ehren Remal), Simon “Jelly Legs” Lamb (Steve Unwin), and Pants Down Elmer Blythe (Benjamin Brinton). Kurtz, Remal, Unwin and Brinton also play the crew of the Penelope, a vessel owned by Eramus (Bob Lohbauer), where they are named Hezekiah Pue, Bertrand the Bald (he’s not), Israel Oban, and Frownin’ Tad Hacke. By an amazing coincidence, the three sailors on the Circe’s Revenge and the three sailors on the Penelope were all separated at birth from their identical twin brothers. (Is your head spinning yet?)
Also aboard the Penelope are Erasmus’ evil older son Cyrus (David Joseph) and tender-hearted younger son Palomides (Aaron Adams). Palomides is seeking his childhood love Ariadne, the daughter of Erasmus’ late navigator, Xeno, even though she has presumed dead for the past thirteen years. Cyrus is such a rotter that he keeps a harem of concubines (aka women of ill repute) on board, also played by Kurtz, Remal, and Unwin.
Not surprisingly, Kurtz, Remal, and Unwin provide the most and the best comedy in the show. A particularly funny running joke has “Jelly Legs” Lamb constantly falling overboard with disastrous and increasingly hilarious results. Remal also gets off lots of cute one-liners, and all three gentlemen look just fabulous in drag.
Brinton’s job is to provide guitar accompaniment for the original music by Shakespeare & Company’s Resident Composer and Music Director Bill Barclay, and for the traditional tunes, such as Blow the Man Down and I’m Tired and I Want to Go Home that Barclay has interpolated and updated. Some of the songs are just too darned long, and one of those long ones is used to introduce all the complicated characters which is a bad idea since no one can really keep up with all those lyrics and much entertaining and necessary exposition is lost.
Adams and Joseph are handsome young men, but their characters are dull as dishwater – even the nefarious Cyrus and it’s usually pretty easy to make the bad guy funny.
I was constantly confused as to which ship we were aboard. Burnet’s set, such as it is, and Kathleen Doyle’s costumes didn’t give me enough of a hint as to when Kurtz, Remal, and Unwin were which crew. Lohbauer also doubles as Mr. Kidd, navigator of the Circe’s Revenge, and I found that confusing as well.
Doyle has provided Greenland with a fabulous piratical ensemble, and Adams and Joseph look dashing in their 18th century duds. And the drag outfits for Kurtz, Remal, and Unwin are a stitch – look for the seafood-inspired bustlines on each gentleman.
Cullen acts as narrator and is a good sport about being constantly hoisted and hauled around by Kurtz, Remal, and Unwin. At one point in Part B she miraculous develops legs, which seemed silly. She had previously pointed out that if she could have magically swapped her tail for legs (and she can magically do a great many things) she would have done so immediately, run to the side of the ship (she is captured by both the Penelope and the Circe’s Revenge and different points in the show) and dived overboard. Well, duh! Either she can or she can’t. And if she can, which is apparently the case, why doesn’t she? I can understand why Cullen can’t be carried about all the time, but keep your story consistent.
I will now make my annual compliant about Shakespeare & Company’s continued practice of presenting their free shows in two parts performed on alternating days. With the price of gasoline two trips to Lenox may be one too many for some families and keep people away. You can catch both halves on Saturdays at 1:15 and 6:15 pm, but that leaves a four hour gap during which families with small children must fine other entertainment. That is certainly not impossible to do, especially if the weather is good, but it requires a big time commitment and dinner out (picnicking on the ShakesCo grounds is always an option.)
As a grown-up with no small children to worry about, I have developed a nice tradition of seeing the 4 pm performance at Ventfort Hall (this year's offering is The Colors of War) in between the two halves of the free show, and using the time between 2:30 and 4 to poke around town, have tea with a friend, etc. I can think of lots of worse places than Lenox to be “stuck” for an afternoon!! I haven’t yet, but it is perfectly possible to add an 8 pm performance at the Shakespeare & Company Founder’s Theatre or some events at Tanglewood to that itinerary as well.
I don’t think any of the small children in the audience I attended with understood what the heck was going on, and there were times when they were clearly bored. But overall the intergenerational audience seemed to be having a good time. The show is free, after all, and a fine family outing despite its shortcomings.
The Shakespeare and Company production of The Mad Pirate and the Mermaid is performed through August 29 on the outdoor, tented Rose Footprint Stage on the Shakespeare & Company campus, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. The Mad Pirate and the Mermaid plays in two parts, performed on alternate days. Parts A and B both play on Saturdays. Each part runs an hour and ten minutes with no intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Admission is free but reservations and tickets are required. Call the box office at 413-637- for tickets and information.
Tickets are free but reservations are required. For a complete listing of productions and schedules please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For group visits, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008