Spoleto 2009 » Theater

Rodney Lee Rogers revives The Gentleman Pirate

Captain Manners

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Our typical image of an 18th-century pirate captain is a swarthy, ill-mannered seadog with a pegleg and a parrot for constant company.

Stede Bonnet was different. Instead of stealing a ship, he bought one. Rather than shanghaiing a crew, he hired one. His well-to-do friends thought he was crazy. Some experts believe he became a pirate to escape his nagging wife.

Whatever the cause, he became a scourge of the Barbados coast, living his rum-soaked dream. PURE Theatre co-founder Rodney Lee Rogers is bringing that dream to life with The Gentleman Pirate, a one-man show. The play focuses on Bonnet's 1718 trial, in which he gave his own defense. The existing transcripts provided Rogers insight into his intentions and interests.

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Rogers, also the writer of the show, notes Bonnet is remembered as an inept pirate.

"What he really was was a bad sailor," Rogers says. "In his day, the boats worked on an oligarchic system."

So what if he lost a crew or two and had his ship, the Revenge, commandeered by Blackbeard?

Those little hiccups didn't stop him from checking off a bunch of fun stuff on his pirate to-do list: stealing sloops, adopting disguises, escaping from jail, and supposedly making his captives walk the plank.

He was the ultimate grown-up embodiment of a boy running away to sea.

"My chief fascination from childhood was Blackbeard," Rogers says. "I was going to focus my play on Israel Hands, his quartermaster. But when I came across Bonnet, I wondered what would make someone take that trip, to completely change who he was when he already had everything he could have wanted."

This mysterious reinvention sparked years of research for Rogers. Although there are some gaps in Bonnet's history, the playwright filled them with lashes of imagination heightened by a lick of Shakespeare.

"Bonnet equipped his quarters with a library with a lot of Shakespeare," Rogers says. "It ties in with the period."

And with The Tragedian, another solo Rogers project about a man with the Bard in his blood, 19th-century actor Edwin Booth. In that biographical play, Booth took a soul-searching look at his career, his relationships, and his ardor for Elizabethan monologues.

Originally performed in the Circular Congregational Church, The Tragedian was enhanced by its surroundings, intimately staged in a vestibule and sanctuary with room for only 40 people at a time. The Gentleman Pirate is even cozier, presented in the 300-year-old Powder Magazine.

"The play begins inside, and I use the building like a set," Rogers says. "There's a set piece and some projection. I like the idea of putting a character in place and using the space to develop him."

The tiny venue doesn't bother Rogers.

"This is more of a personal project than a big production. It ties into the community and the city. There was a trial here. He was held at the Provost Marshal's house. The lower class saw the pirates as heroes, and there were almost riots — they're called 'disturbances' in the trial transcripts."

The Tragedian coincided with a resurgence of interest in the Booth family in film and literature. Likewise, pirates are in the public consciousness again thanks to the modern-day acts of Somalian freebooters.

"They're out there now, using the same tactics as pirates in Bonnet's day," Rogers says. "Nothing really changes."

With its atmospheric setting, short running time, and colorful subject matter, Rogers is confident that The Gentleman Pirate will be "a fun event, although it's pretty scary for anyone under 11 or 12. What went on was horrific. Surprisingly, head chopping doesn't bother people when it's done by pirates."

With only 40 seats and six performances, demand should be high.

"Bonnet was of a different world," Rogers says. "He took charge of his life and endured. That's why this material's so fascinating to me."

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