Spoleto 2009 » Theater

The Gentleman Pirate rocks, even without parrots

Rodney Lee Rogers' original play is a treasure



Rodney Lee Rogers' not-quite-so-dread pirate Stede Bonnet is, as his contemporaries might say, a man of parts.

He is a well-bred Englishman who quotes Shakespeare. He is a charming rogue who chides his audience with clever, self-deprecating asides. He is an historian and engaging autobiographical raconteur who relates his story with brevity and wit. And, most particularly, Rogers makes him a window into the golden age of West Indies seafaring naughtiness.

As a trade, piracy has not changed very much. To this day, it remains the simple art of pitting a nimble antagonist against a lumbering, lightly defended merchant vessel. Even Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, learned early on that an intimidating reputation could yield the highest payoff with the smallest collateral cost in bloodshed. Less messy that way and far more profitable. Reputedly, the six foot tall sea devil never took a life in the heat of battle. The pistol bandoliers across his chest, his glowering mien, and self-ignited beard tips were enough to convey the message: here angels fear to tread.

Bonnet himself had a history with Teach. The wannabe pirate had apprenticed with him, was double-crossed by the wily buccaneer, and eventually met his fate at trial as a result of this blackguard's duplicity. Rogers brings Teach back to life for us along with other personages, noble and villainous, in Bonnet's life. With each of these delightful character vignettes, Rogers fills out the picture of his remarkably inept pirate. An all too gentlemanly, honor-bound soul was Stede Bonnet.

Bonnet was apprehended once, tried in Charleston, sentenced, and jailed. But that first time, he'd neatly slipped his gaoler's custody when a comrade broke him out of jail and hurried him away, disguised in woman's clothing. The Gentleman Pirate is his second trial. Bonnet knows he's fighting for his life. And like any sailor worth his tot of rum, he can see when the tide's running against him. His judges did not take kindly to having their noses tweaked by his humiliating escape. This time, he will swing and Rogers' Bonnet makes it plain to his jury (the audience) that they "hold something very precious to him in their hands." Rogers points out that the result — most of the jury/audience votes for leniency — mirrors the true life esteem in which Bonnet was held among the people of Charleston.

It's all great fun, splendidly performed and exhaustively researched by Rogers. After the performance, he makes himself available, in character, to answer questions.

Gentleman Pirate is an entertaining, edifying escape into the lore of local pirates and their brotherhood of scoundrels. Rogers pilots this ship handily and delivers the goods. Lock, stock, and barrel.

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