“It’s ‘Kill Bill’ on the high seas, and it’s a blast … director Geoff Coates … and his gang of scurvy knaves and knavettes kick up a storm in the Storefront space—and provide an exciting alternative to politer (and pricier) downtown fare . . . for those who prefer their summer action practically in their laps, it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying night of theater.”
- Chicago Tribune
“In BackStage Theatre’s sprightly revival, director Coates’ background as a fight choreographer comes in handy with the nearly nonstop action sequences.”
January 1st, 1970
Decades before Boublil and Schönberg’s bloated, lifeless Pirate Queen washed up on these shores, Chicago’s storied Organic Theater Company introduced audiences to a far more interesting female pirate, the fiery Bloody Bess. First produced in 1974, the melodrama tells the story of Elizabeth Presberty, a high-born 17th-century woman who starts the play as captive of a buccaneering ship called the God’s Love and ends up becoming its captain. Aided by her gruff rival turned bosom friend, Annie Bailey, Presberty’s marauding is motivated less by greed than by her desire to avenge herself on a dastardly naval officer who has killed her father and sexually assaulted her. The play’s noteworthiness lies in its combination of swashbuckling spectacle with unapologetically ferocious feminism.
In BackStage Theatre’s sprightly revival, director Coates’s background as a fight choreographer comes in handy with the nearly nonstop action sequences. For the most part eschewing high-flying acrobatics, Coates takes a visceral, ultrarealistic approach to staging the violence so that it seems both surprising and remarkably immediate. Eva Swan and Stephanie Repin, as Bess and Annie, respectively, start off a bit tepidly but find their characters’ fire in time to win our admiration in spite of their bloody deeds. Frankly, after all these months of watching Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama get pilloried for being strong women, it’s comforting to see a couple of ladies kicking ass.
- Zac Thompson, Time Out Chicago
“Sometimes playful and sometimes gripping, Bloody Bess combines brains with brawn—it’s exciting enough to make even the most jaded viewer go ‘Arrrr!’ . . . Eva Swan buries herself completely in Bess’s unquenchable rage, hatred, and lust for revenge …”
January 1st, 1970
June 19, 2008
The June 2 death of theater legend Paul Sills called to mind the heady early days of the off-Loop movement he helped launch. The late 1960s and early ’70s saw an explosion of low-budget, high-excitement companies like Sills’s own Story Theater, Free Theater, Kingston Mines (birthplace of Grease), and the gender-bending Godzilla Rainbow Troupe.
Perhaps most exciting was the Organic Theater, whose artistic director, Stuart Gordon, was a Sills protege. The Organic specialized in fanciful, highly physical productions infused with the power of make-believe. Though it never enjoyed the New York success later achieved by Steppenwolf, it launched the careers of such notables as Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Bruce Young, Meshach Taylor, John Cameron Mitchell, Andre de Shields, and Gordon himself, who became a movie director, best known for the cult horror flick Re-Animator.
Gordon’s shows often drew on literary sources, from Voltaire’s Candide to Ray Bradbury’s The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. But he was equally enthralled by classic genre films. His 1971 sci-fi trilogy Warp! (cowritten with former Reader critic Lenny Kleinfeld) paid tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s.
In 1974, the Organic came up with another Hollywood homage. Conceived by Gordon and scripted by ensemble members John Ostrander (later a writer of comic books, including the Star Wars: Legacy series) and William J. Norris, Bloody Bess: A Tale of Piracy and Revenge took its inspiration from swashbuckling adventure sagas like Captain Blood and The Black Swan. But, in typical Organic style, it put an irreverent and (at the time) innovative spin on the genre, viewing it through the prism of the women’s liberation and black power movements.
The premise of Bloody Bess sounds remarkably like that of Disney’s recent Pirates of the Caribbean series. Elizabeth Presberty, the beautiful but arrogant young daughter of a British colonial governor, is captured by a band of buccaneers whom she initially despises but eventually accepts as her comrades. But from there Bloody Bess takes a much darker approach. Elizabeth doesn’t merely join the crew; she becomes its leader, killing off a male rival before agreeing to share power with an escaped black slave, N’gali. The pirate captain who takes her hostage is much less successful than Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow at escaping death, and the smug naval officer Elizabeth is expected to marry, Commodore Eaton, isn’t merely unworthy—he’s a treacherous murderer who rapes his betrothed before forcing her to marry him while she’s bound and gagged. (Eaton comes to regret his abuse, admitting, “She’s a better captain than she is a bedmate.”)
One of my favorite theatergoing memories is of Organic actors swinging from ropes over my head in the original Bloody Bess, which was presented at the Uptown Center Hull House, now home of the Black Ensemble. In 2002 the play was mounted by the now-defunct Red Hen Productions, whose cramped black-box space was ill-suited to the sprawling displays of stage violence the play’s creators intended. But the city-sponsored Storefront Theater downtown is a near-perfect venue for the show, and the BackStage Theatre Company’s new staging takes advantage of that fact. With its high ceilings and catwalks, the Storefront allows director Geoff Coates’s scurvy crew to swing from the rigging, run in and around the audience during their numerous battle scenes, and achieve some exciting—and occasionally gruesome—effects. One hapless character’s throat is cut as he dangles upside down from a rope, and another is hanged. There are swordfights, fisticuffs, even death by blowgun, all accompanied by bloodcurdling cries and raucous bellows.
But Bloody Bess is also a meditation on the thirst for vengeance. Its protagonists give their lives to punish those who have wronged them, and the script asks us to consider whether their sacrifice is honorable or merely self-destructive. So it’s important that the actors bring psychological as well as physical commitment to their roles. Eva Swan buries herself completely in Bess’s unquenchable rage, hatred, and lust for revenge; Scott Graham takes obvious pleasure in Eaton’s corruption; and Stephanie Repin (artistic director of the all-female stage combat troupe Babes With Blades) combines fierceness and vulnerability as Annie Bailey, the pirate ship’s other female crew member.
As N’gali, Warren Phynix Johnson handles his ripe dialogue with aplomb. (“You are like a pomegranate,” he tells Annie, “concealing a sweet fruit under a leathery cover.”) Gregory Isaac brings depth and presence to the doomed pirate captain Levoisseur (the name is a twist on Levasseur, the buccaneer played by Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood). And David Skvarla tears up the stage as Levoisseur’s burly, mutinous rival, Calico Jack Rackham. (There really was a Calico Jack, by the way, and he really did sail with two female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Reade.)
Sound effects and music are crucial elements in any good pirate production, and the Storefront’s movie theater-quality sound system is a huge asset. Composer Tom Haigh’s wonderfully bombastic incidental music evokes the scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Alfred Newman, while sound designer Miles Polaski fills the air with the squawking of seagulls, the roar of cannon fire, the rolling of waves against the hull, and the splash of bodies falling overboard. Rachel Sypniewski’s rich-looking costumes evoke the story’s late-16th-century setting, and scenic designer Heath Hays locates the action in and around the Caribbean by turning the stage floor into a map.
Sometimes playful and sometimes gripping, Bloody Bess combines brains with brawn—it’s exciting enough to make even the most jaded viewer go “Arrrr!” v
- Albert Williams, Chicago Reader
“BackStage has proven itself one of the storefront scene’s more reliably eclectic producers . . . a standard-bearer for quality and innovation on a budget.”
January 1st, 1970
Steppenwolf gets the well-deserved glory as the great success story of the 1970s Off Loop–theater movement—the company and its ensemble members are now serving as Chicago theater’s ambassadors to Broadway, after all, having racked up seven nominations for this Sunday’s Tony Awards.
But the kids in the suburban basement weren’t the only ones redefining Chicago’s theater scene in the ’70s. Stuart Gordon’s Organic Theater Company was one of the more reliably eclectic producers, applying its decidedly DIY ethic to everything from the trippy sci-fi–and–macramé Warp trilogy to a tiny little world premiere called Sexual Perversity in Chicago.
The Organic in its heyday was an incubator of splashy comic-book theater, where the answer to “Why?” was pretty much “Why not?” One of the early ensemble-created shows was William Norris and John Ostrander’s 1974 entry, Bloody Bess—a swashbuckling, stunt-filled play about an English noblewoman’s transformation into a vengeful pirate captain. The homegrown bit of Chicago theater history gets a revival this week thanks to BackStage Theatre Company, and the Organic callback seems appropriate. Over its eight-year history, BackStage has proven itself (wait for it) one of the storefront scene’s more reliably eclectic producers, with a decidedly DIY ethic.
We’re not suggesting that BackStage is the new Organic, exactly; the companies’ aesthetics and missions are quite different. But as a standard-bearer for quality and innovation on a budget, BackStage evokes Organic’s scrappy spirit.
That scrappiness is evidenced by the fact the company even made it past its first year. It was founded in 2000 by Amy Monday and Janette Benton, both late of the now-defunct Boxer Rebellion Theater; Benton departed before the end of the debut season. Undaunted, Monday called on another Boxer Rebellion friend, actor Melissa Young, to pick up the reins as artistic director, in a selection process Monday describes as “Hey, would you do me a favor?”
With Young as artistic director and Monday as managing director, BackStage put together its initial ensemble and worked on emphasizing the importance of all theatrical disciplines, with ensemble members pulling double and triple duty on- and offstage. Even their board chair did everything from production management to lighting design.
The content on stage at this point perhaps reflected the scattered attention of artists doing so many jobs; the material ranged from gay comedy to Shakespeare to the ensemble-generated cabaret Everything’s Sexy. But the company was gaining a following and, with it, an increased workload. When Young stepped down in 2003 to pursue grad school, BackStage hired Brandon Bruce as artistic director.
Under Bruce’s tenure, the itinerant company strengthened its reputation for what he liked to call “doing big things in small spaces,” with sharp ensemble work in pieces like Denise Druczweski’s Inferno and The Skin of Our Teeth. After a couple of years, though, Bruce too was ready to step down and go the MFA route. But he had a replacement in mind.
BODY AND SOUL Rebekah Ward-Hayes and Andy Baldeschwiler have it out in the company’s 2007 Waiting for Lefty.
At the 2006 non-Equity Jeffs, where Jason Kae was picking up the directing award for Infamous Commonwealth’s Kentucky Cycle (which he and Genevieve Thompson codirected), Bruce floated the idea. “He said, ‘I’m leaving the company; can I submit your name to be artistic director?’ ” Kae recalls. The 32-year-old Elk Grove Village native, an alum of downstate Millikin University, had a slew of freelance directing gigs under his belt but no administrative experience and was interested in the prospect of an artistic home. A résumé, three letters of rec and four interviews later, he had the job. (Monday wryly notes the process has gotten slightly more formal.)
“When I came on board, I wanted to focus up our mission statement,” Kae says. “Being where I was in my life”—he became a new daddy last fall—“I thought, nobody’s really exploring family. Not ‘family theater,’ but the idea of family in society, whether that’s mom and dad or the work family or what have you.” The ensemble members, many of whom have kids of their own, went for it.
Bess closes Kae’s first season, following stellar revivals of Waiting for Lefty and How I Learned to Drive, each certainly a “family play” in its way. The BackStage family, for its part, has already—several times over—crossed the management-change hurdle that proved too much for Organic, which never really recovered from Gordon’s departure in the mid ’80s.
“Having worked for a lot of companies, I saw that a lot of times the company hinges on the artistic director,” Kae says, “and when that artistic director goes away or has a breakdown or decides to pursue other things, the company falls apart.” For BackStage, things just keep falling together.
- Kris Vire, Time Out Chicago