by John Stoehr
The trendy thing to do among artists is to show how they're making something. This can be done self-consciously. For instance, process was built into the storytelling framework of Story of a Rabbit. That marvelous one-man play was narrative layered over meta-narrative and it really worked for me. For Japanese dancer Hiroaki Umeda's performance, there was nothing but process. It wasn't a story in his case but the creation of an environment. Even his dancing, as City Paper dance critic Gervase Caycedo has pointed out, was secondary to this process. While Rodney Lee Rogers didn't wear process on his sleeve during the debut performance of The Gentleman Pirate on Wednesday, you could tell the process was unfolding, even as he portrayed the courtly and tragic life of Stede Bonnet.
From an theatergoer's point of view, it was fascinating to watch. I've seen Rogers perform many times — his resume is conspicuous as a record of rock-solid acting — but never in an environment like the one found at the historic Powder Magazine on Cumberland Street in which the actor had to improvise, adjust, edit-on-the-fly, and even use a bit of humor to overcome obstacles he had no way of anticipating prior to the debut. Though The Gentleman Pirate doesn't live up to Rogers' level of excellence (he admitted as much to me later), the performance itself wasn't as interesting on that day as watching the performance in the making.
What didn't go wrong? First, it was blazing hot inside the Powder Magazine. Rogers told me later the nearly 40 bodies in that tight space made it steam up fast (there's no AC in the historic structure). Then there was the issue of space. Some 40 people stuffed into a room makes it hard to swing a sword without lobbing an earlobe off (in fact, he performed with a blood stain on the inside of his right ankle where he had nicked himself the day before). Rogers took us outside into the courtyard for the dramatic conclusion only to be drowned out half the time by jackhammers, road traffic, and some kind of air compressor-type noise across the street. Back in the room: It's festooned with artifacts, including sharp spears leaning against a wall. At one point, a woman innocently backed into them, nearly sending the spears crashing down. Rogers saw what was about to happen and deftly stepped forward while still in character: "Careful, miss, those are sharp." If that wasn't enough demonstration of Rogers' mastery, what came next surely did: He gave the startled woman a can't-miss wink that was not Stede Bonnet at all. It was all Rogers.
And we haven't even address audience interaction. There's a lot of it. Rogers told me later that he erred in the beginning by not addressing the audience as members of Stede Bonnet's jury (the pirate stands trial for crimes that he may or may not have committed). He went with his original plan instead of adjusting on the spot and only after finishing did he realize that that was a mistake (in fact, much of what he had planned "went right out the window," he told me, because it wasn't going to work). Some audiences need to be warmed up, he said, but this one was ready to interact with a pirate right from the start. He said he'd be more mindful of that next time.
I can't say honestly that I got a feel for the play. I wish I had, but didn't Yet knowing Rogers' track record as an actor, and after witnessing him work through the process of bringing Stede Bonnet to life, there's no question I'll be coming back to see it again. Besides, who doesn't like stories about pirates? -JS