Based on the book Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson.
Adapted by Ilesa Duncan and David Barr, III.
Directed by Ilesa Duncan.
Produced by Pegasus Theatre Chicago.
Playing at Chicago Dramatists, Chicago.
Adventure On the High Seas!
In the spirit of its newly rebranded mission to produce “boldly imaginative theatre” and “illuminate the human journey,” Pegasus Theatre opened this weekend Rutherford’s Travels, its World Premiere adaptation of Charles Johnson’s National Book Award-Winning Novel Middle Passage. A story about a newly freed slave who accidentally happens upon a slave ship bound for Africa, Rutherford’s Travels is an entertaining adventure and an impressive feat of adaptation.
After being set free from bondage by his (all things considered) kind master, 23-year-old Rutherford Calhoun (Breon Arzell), self-avowed scoundrel and thief, makes his way to New Orleans to begin his new life and indulge his senses in women and pleasure. Shortly after his arrival, however, he meets the well-educated and puritanical schoolteacher Isadora (Naïma Hebrail Kidjo), whose alluring and impenetrable beauty ultimately lands him in a dilemma: Isadora essentially blackmails Rutherford by promising his creditor, the nefarious villain Papa Zerinque (Darren Jones), that she will pay his debt if Rutherford marries her.
Rutherford, however, is a principled man: the boy don’t wanna marry! So, rather than get tied up with Isadora, Rutherford escapes as a stowaway onto a ship, The Republic. Out of the freezer and into the frying pan: as fortune would have it, The Republic is captained by the ruthless and jaded (albeit rather amicable) Captain Falcon (Gary Houston), and its destination is Africa, to pick up slaves and a mysterious cargo.
The slaves stowed away, and The Republic bound for home, circumstances aboard the ship begin to go south, as the crew, disgruntled with and suspicious of Falcon’s leadership (and his sanity), begin to plot mutiny. Rutherford’s situation is made the worse since he finds himself nominally allied with both Falcon and the crew — not to mention spiritually allied with the slaves, who are plotting their own insurrection. Trapped aboard this ship in the middle of the Atlantic, Rutherford cannot escape the responsibility of this choice: he must somehow survive if he ever hopes to see America again.
The easiest way I can think to describe Rutherford’s Travels is to compare its tone to the Indiana Jones franchise: given its subject matter, it is a very light adventure, with effective comedic elements, broad characterizations, and a shallow psychological depth that’s excused by the fact that the story isn’t really trying to say anything — it’s just entertaining. Darren Jones as Papa Zerinque is a mustache-twirling kind of villain (even though his moral corruption goes quite deep); and Gary Houston’s Falcon, while being the most nuanced performance in the production, is still written as too good-natured to be taken here as ruthless. Even the “good guys” are a bit too understanding and humanitarian to be seen as realistic portraits of seafarers.
In other words, this production is friendly for the whole family (teens and older). It’s an adventure on the high seas! The set is made all of planks of wood, from the elevated stage to the walls that are painted like an ocean, and is a very pleasant and exciting atmosphere created by Elyse Balogh. The lighting, too, by Josh Wroblewski, maintains a fascinating mood throughout the production, from its warm, isolating spotlights for Rutherford’s internal reflections, to its cold lightning flashes for perilous sea conditions.
Breon Arzell, as Rutherford, follows up his last impressive performance at Raven Theatre in The Scottsboro Boys with an equally impressive performance here. Narrating most of the story (the novel is written as his journals), Arzell manages to keep up the energy and excitement with charm and humor. Andrew Malone, another star from The Scottsboro Boys, is also present here, although (regrettably) in a only a few minor roles, as Rutherford’s brother, Jackson, and the leader apparent of the slaves, Ngonyama; nevertheless, he is a pleasure to see again, too.
The rest of the cast is just as well suited in their respective roles. Gary Houston, as was mentioned above, was my favorite, as his character insinuated the most depth and was intriguing in his mysterious obsession with the strange cargo (which I won’t name here to save the surprise). Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, as Isadora, captures the subtle comedy of her character perfectly, as a woman who is cleverly coy beneath a dignified pose. And Ron Quade, as the ship’s cook Squibb, is an endearing comedic drunk.
While the production is quite long and does tend to drag in its more protracted scenes, Rutherford’s Travels is the best adventure I’ve seen translated to the stage, and one I think most ages would find entertaining.
Reviewed on 6 November 2016.
Playing at Chicago Dramatists, 773 N. Aberdeen, Chicago. Tickets are $30, with tickets at $25 for Seniors and $18 for Students. For tickets and information, visit PegasusTheatreChicago.org. Performances are Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through December 4th. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one, 10-minute intermission.