First Folio Theatre's "Captain Blood" is outrageously entertaining. But leaving the production at that sells it short. It's not just perfectly paced. It doesn't just have the ideal blend of humor, romance and adventure. It's not just escapism. It's all those things, it's an intelligent, thoughtful work in its own right, and it's a loving tribute to Alison C. Vesely, the company's long time artistic director, who recently died after a long battle with cancer.
David Rice, Vesely's husband, is credited with the adaptation. However, as he acknowledged to the "Daily Herald" that what First Folio has brought to the stage is, in fact, a five-year collaboration between the two of them, with Vesely providing notes on the script at a final reading in October 2016, choosing the actor to portray the leading lady, and emphasizing the importance of having a female director as proof against "too much testosterone."
Everything about the show was worth the wait. The adaptation itself deftly and humorously assigns the exposition to three of Blood's crew, Hagthorpe, Wolverston and Ogle, who bicker with each other about how much backstory and connective tissue the tale really needs. It provides a heroine who, far from being the toy surprise bride at the end, is a character we care about.
Angela Weber Miller absolutely outdoes herself in transforming the theater space. She more or less abandons the proscenium, building out and to the sides, to create the docks of the Caribbean Island and the decks of Blood's ship. Downstage right and left, as well as upstage center, provide exits that allow the pirates to appear from and disappear to below decks.
Open spaces (that are hopefully well padded) allow for dramatic falls into the sea, and all of the "sails" double as screens for Erin Pleake's projections, which beautifully and seamlessly provide visual cues for the shift in scene.
Christopher Kriz's Sound Design (who also contributes the music to a rousing, ear-wormy "Ballad of Captain Blood") and Greg Freeman's Lighting ably ramp things up to Hollywood drama, and Alexa Weinzerl's costumes deftly communicate about class, race, gender and nationality.
The excellent design provides a firm foundation for a cast that deserves nothing but the best. When approaching the adaptation, Rice stipulated that Nick Sandys and only Nick Sandys could play the titular pirate. Sandys brings not only his considerable charisma and brilliant comic timing to the proceedings, he also acts as Movement Director, and I'm not sure I've ever seen more ambitious or better executed stage combat.
Opposite Sandys, Heather Chrisler is also great as Arabella. Rice noted to the "Herald" that the adaptation brings much of his relationship with Vesely to the adaptation, and Sandys and Chrisler do the wit and chemistry of the piece justice.
In the supporting cast, Kevin McKillip expertly walks the line of comic relief as Hagthorpe and Esteban de Panadero, Blood's Spanish nemesis. In body language and vocal mannerisms, he pushes the boundaries of funny, always landing on the right side.
McKillip, Christopher W. Jones (Wolverston) and Jaq Seifert (Ogle) also play off one another brilliantly, easily moving from narrator to character and back again. In truth, the entire ensemble is terrific in what must be a dizzying, exhausting series of quick-change roles.
"Captain Blood" runs through February 26 at the Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st Street and Route 83), in Oak Brook. For tickets or information, call 630-986-8067 or visit www.firstfolio.org