British essayist, moralist and observer Samuel Johnson, never at a loss for words, said this about sailing the seas: “Being in jail with the chance of being drowned.”
Right on again, Dr. Johnson. A case in point, the small but sturdy HMS Bounty, setting sail on Christmas Eve in 1787, bound for Tahiti, a 10-month journey to the South Pacific paradise, where breadfruit grew prolifically, a food thought feasible for the British slave workers of the West Indies.
The 33-year-old William Bligh, a superb navigator and cartographer, was at the helm of the Bounty; his one-time shipmate, Fletcher Christian, second in command. On paper, a long but profitable voyage, but the ship never returned.
History tells us – but several Hollywood movie versions have mightily skewed known facts – that while Bligh was a very capable sailor, his by-the-book leadership style got him into continual trouble with his crew. (The naval regulatory handbook, “Articles of War” was his bible). Bligh frowned on flogging or hazing of novice seamen, but he never mastered his acid tongue and had a penchant for verbal abuse.
Bligh’s faults and increasingly unpredictable behavior eventually led to a famed and fascinating mutiny on the Bounty, an illegal commandeering of the ship by Christian and some accomplices shortly after leaving Tahiti. Christian also acting a bit strange, the crew divided in their loyalties. Bligh and his followers miraculously survived, thanks to their captain’s superb sea skills and his parsing out what food they had. They made it back to England, there to be acquitted of any wrongdoing. Fletcher and his partners – with native women, some now wives, aboard – roamed the Pacific, hiding out on volcanic isles, notably Pitcairn, where today inbred descendants of the rebels still remotely reside.
The New Phoenix Theatre has inventively revived this story in “Bounty: As Re-created by The Sailors of Pitcairn’s Island.” Director Robert Waterhouse, with help from his cast – “company developed,” according to program notes – has gleaned from the available meticulous logs, journals and investigative notes a workable, listenable, often humorous and honest rendering of the tale. Its optimistic beginnings, its sybaritic Tahitian interlude, its violent turn of events, all set up by Pitcairn half-crazed remnants, Bligh trial scenes and hints of sexual island frolicking that may have convinced many of the sailors that maybe this place is better than the Tower of London.
Michael Lodick has created a shiplike set with yardarms and pulleys, ropes and decks. Tom Makar has devised wood-ship era creaks and groans, howling gales and monster waves. Michele Costa has added kinky puppetry and Chris Cavanagh’s lighting designs and Jessica Wegrzyn’s costumes deserve applause. Technically, the show is a wonder.
Waterhouse’s large cast – all male except young and promising Zoe Green Appler – makes it all work. Most play several roles. Phoenix impresario Richard Lambert, Adam Yellen, Geoff Pictor, John F. Kennedy, Geoffrey Devereux and Alphonso Walker Jr. are a disgruntled lot one more cup of grog away from jail or drowning, a la Dr. Johnson.
Christian Brandjes is Captain Bligh, Chris Kelly is Fletcher Christian. The two veteran actors excel in these roles, Brandjes in his outbursts and his many moments of humanity and genuine caring about his men; Bligh’s explanation of God, the Son and the Holy Ghost to a Tahitian chieftain is one for the ages. The always astute Kelly is best when pensive but he’s decisive and finally, no longer a mystery, a leader in the late going. Bligh and Christian’s scenes together are potent and perfect. Terrific work.
“Bounty” is for “mature audiences”; for the young playgoer, some topics can wait.
Four stars (Out of four)
What: “Bounty: As Re-created by The Sailors of Pitcairn’s Island”
Where: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park
When: Through Dec. 21