The Pirate Laureate of Port Town by one-year-old DC Company Flying V Theatre is flat out hilarious and great fun. I love the DC metro area because companies like this can thrive here and produce plays like this, an original work by playwright Zachary Fernebok. Flying V is dedicated to new work and contemporary plays that explore, as they say, “genre fiction, comic books, and other modern mythologies,” but also plays that do not skimp on real characters or emotional impact. A world of pirates employing poets to do the major fighting capitalizes on our enduring obsession as a culture with pirates, but that is the extent of modern culture it borrows. The play and the oddball crew of the good ship Chartreuse are entirely unique.
In this world, words hold the most power and pirate laureates write odes and sonnets to read out while attacking. On the Chartreuse, Captain Greyscale (Matthew Pauli) has poet laureate Finn (Alex Vaughan), who writes poems in a bottle to his love Sandy (Megan Graves) back in Port Town when he’s not writing fighting sonnets. The play begins as the ship hits a rock and they are forced to return there after 15 years. Words may be powerful, but there are no less than three duels in the play and several fistfights. Well, one duel involves pens and another a parasol but things don’t come easy to the crew in Port Town. Fight choreographer Jonathan Ezra Rubin had his hands full.
Words are power and they are also the stars of the show. I have never seen a playwright who loves alliteration more. They sail the “sacred and scurvy” Chatreuse, after all. Fernebok clearly delights in the script. It also takes a certain kind of fearlessness to put your couplets on stage in all their rhyming glory. Bad poetry would have sunk this production, but the script never fumbles from the “heyo’s” and other in-jokes that build up over the play to the occasional modern curse. Like when the bombastic Captain denies being a scaredy cat with the emphatic, “I so totally am not!” One running gag about similes is pretty hilarious. Yes, he makes grammatical jokes, repeatedly…and everyone laughs harder every time.
Director Jason Schlafstein takes this intricate script and goes to town. The play had a very cinematic feel with a soundtrack of ominous and triumphant music backing key moments and great physical comedy in every scene. The soundtrack is handled well by Sound Designer Neil McFadden. Schlafstein has the actors climbing up over and across this set and there’s never a down moment. He exploits every beat of the script.
The set is impressive by Joseph Musumeci: an entire bow of a ship that spins in the second act to portray Port Town. A life-sized mast rises above the deck and a sail stretches across the entire stage. The main entrance is a six-rung ladder to the foredeck and then another ladder down to the main deck and people exit and enter a lot. The lighting design by Kris Thompson is appropriately piratical, successfully summoning the ocean and an occasional fireball to the theater.
The costumes by playwright Zachary Fernebok take advantage of this quirky, offbeat tone. The cast looks less like typical pirates with their eye patches and more like steampunk explorers. Lookout Ruby (Doug Wilder) wears bright red pants and a fur vest and nothing else. Opal (Megan Reichelt) is in overalls, boots, and aviator goggles and in her second act role as Aurora she is almost unrecognizable in a black, lace corset. The Captain has a fabulous grey coat plus the biggest sword and the highest boots.
Flying V is an ensemble company and the six cast members are very generous with each other, tossing jokes like cannon balls and working seamlessly together. Alex Vaughan (Finn) is fresh faced and eager and never once stumbled on his serious tongue twisters. Matthew Pauli (Captain Greyscale) seems to be fulfilling a life-long dream to be a pirate judging from the complete joy on his face as he delivers every line. He also plays a mean mandolin. Their relationship is at the heart of the play and they’re a great pair, both for the gags and the quieter moments.
Megan Graves (Sandy) takes the trope of the sweet damsel back home and turns it on its head. She walks that line between sweet and scheming excellently. The rest of the cast embodies two rolls – as pirates and Port Town resident. Maggie Erwin (Hue/Cesealia) has the biggest contrast between a salty first mate and stately dame. Her comic timing is impeccable. Doug Wilder (Ruby/LeReif) plays the lookout that never seems to see anything and the scheming rival pirate. He milked both over-the-top roles for all they were worth. Megan Reichelt (Opal/Aurora) brought a vulnerability and heart to both of her characters as the pirate with a secret crush and the rival playwright.
This is a rare partnership between a playwright who knew exactly the play he wanted to write about words and pirates and love, and a director who knew exactly how to make it happen with a cast and crew that delivers. Every detail is rendered perfectly from the songs to props like his retractable quill pen to the big moments between Captain and poet or a boy and his long lost love.
The Pirate Laureate of Port Town makes for an entertaining, touching, and truly funny evening.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Opening Tonight at The Writer’s Center: ‘The Pirate Laureate of Port Town’ by Playwright Zachary Fernebok