Theater review: The Pirate Queen, at the Cadillac Palace Theater in Chicago

    The Pirate Queen made me cry. That’s not because of any emotional connection I had with the musical, nor because of my dismay at its general quality. Instead, The Pirate Queen induced my water-works with pyrotechnics.

    Photo courtesy of little bit after the beginning of its second act, there’s a raging sea battle – complete with mock-cannons firing at seemingly random intervals. Each firing came with a “BOOM!” so loud I seized up in shock, and a flash of light so bright that my singed eyes began to water.

    All I could think at that point was: “Dear God, do these people have any decency? Haven’t they watched their own play? Why didn’t anyone tell the director that his special effects were literally offensive to the human body??”

    Coming out of The Pirate Queen, which is showing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre ahead of its 2007 Broadway debut, my feelings about the show in general were pretty similar to my feelings about its cannons. Why hadn’t anyone involved in its five-year-long preparation stepped back, looked at the play as a whole, and done something to prevent it from becoming the lifeless, bloated parody I had just seen?

    The Pirate Queen is a big deal. There are more than 40 people, all accomplished actors, in its cast. Its set pieces – sails, riggings, English courts and Irish countrysides – are huge, stunning and always moving around on stage. The story ambitiously chronicles the life of 16th century Irish chieftain Grace “Grania” O’Malley. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the men behind the smash-hit Les Misérables, penned the show. Tony-winner Frank Galati, of Grapes of Wrath and Ragtime (also a professor of Performance Studies at NU), directs it.

    All that talent, time and money, however, have made something totally unaffecting. Stephanie J. Block plays Grania, who defies her father’s wishes by becoming a “pirate” (though these are the least swashbuckling pirates I’ve ever seen) but inexplicably gives into her father’s wishes by marrying womanizing oaf Donal instead of her true love, the bland Tiernan. She leads the Irish fleet against the British navy led by the simpering Lord Bingham, but then gets betrayed by the jilted and bitter Donal. Time passes, Tiernan trades Grania’s imprisonment for his own, and in the end, the play’s two queens – Grania and Elizabeth – talk out their nation’s differences behind a back-lit screen.

    The problem is that much of this plot would be incomprehensible to the audience without the two-page synopsis they’re handed when walking into the theater. The action on stage is poorly choreographed: you can hardly tell who’s winning and who’s losing in the limp fight scenes. The cast sings every line of the play, making it easy to miss important plot developments. And, despite the set’s visual vividness, the musical takes a tell-not-show approach to story, with characters’ words instead of their actions revealing relevant aspects of their character.

    That’s all part of The Pirate Queen’s fatal flaw: the lack of any memorable characters, moments or songs. You’d expect something called “The Pirate Queen” to center around its titular pirate. Instead, the play spends a too much time with its stock characters doing things that stock characters do: Tiernan pines, Donal boasts, Elizabeth shrieks, Bingham schemes – never changing, never really advancing our understanding of the story.

    Grania should be sassy, she should develop, she should have a definable personality; instead, she’s too busy dealing with the convoluted plot to grow as a character. She has a couple of confessional songs, but they don’t endear her to the audience because the music is bland and un-hummable, like the rest of the Celtic-contemporary pablum played throughout the show. Her motives remain largely a mystery: Why does she fall in love with Tiernan? Why does she fight so hard for her country? What makes her such a great leader? In the end, we don’t know Grania, so we don’t care about her – or anyone else in the play.

    Perhaps the emotional inaccessibility of the play would forgivable if it strived for authenticity – maybe, one could argue, we don’t know Grania because little was known about her historical self. But there’s nothing authentic about The Pirate Queen. The sets, the costumes, the effects are all meticulously constructed but over-the-top, giving the impression of an airbrushed, cartoon version of 16th century Ireland. Queen Elizabeth’s dresses are ridiculous, as they surely were in real life, but they look more like, well, stage costumes than actual historical garb. Both acts begin with a map-like screen hung across the stage – but they’re more montages than maps, emblazoned with words and pictures of boats, like the cover of bad paperback pirate novels. The actors don’t have Irish accents – except for a couple who do – and they speak (well, sing) contemporary English, complete with four-and-five-letter expletives. None of this comes across as edgy – it’s just inconsistent.

    I understand why the playwrights would throw ear-shattering, eye-burning cannons into the mix halfway through the play: to inject some excitement into the inaccessible and tedious narrative. But invoking more fight-or-flight adrenal reactions in the audience is not the way to fix The Pirate Queen before it gets to Broadway. Compelling music, relatable characters, and a clearer plot – now that would be explosive.


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