A hearty shanty may not be the way swashbucklers typically begin. But when it's accompanied by a rollicking battle, like the one that launches First Folio Theatre's family-friendly "Captain Blood," the pairing is boffo.
It's a splendid start for this zesty romance/adventure tale adapted by First Folio executive director David Rice from Rafael Sabatini's 1922 novel. The dashing, dexterous Nick Sandys -- whose deliciously plummy accent is always a treat -- plays the fictional Peter Blood. He's a 17th-century soldier, doctor and all-around Renaissance man who's convicted of treason after treating insurgents injured in the Monmouth Rebellion against Britain's King James II. Enslaved, he's sent to Barbados where he impresses plantation heiress Arabella Bishop (a spirited, self-reliant Heather Chrisler). She purchases him over the objections of her uncle, the callous Colonel Bishop (Aaron Christensen), who takes an immediate dislike to the erudite doctor.
"Captain Blood"★ ★ ★ ˝
Location: First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 3 p.m. Thursday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 26
Running time: About two hours, including intermission
Parking: Free lot adjacent to the estate
Rating: For all ages
The initial prickliness between Peter and Arabella -- de rigueur for this type of melodrama -- gives way to affection. The evidence of that comes in the form of the glib banter accompanying their skirmish with Spanish invaders, during which Arabella proves herself quite the swordswoman.
At one point she quips: "Who saves you when there are no women around?" It's one of several pointed references to female empowerment, a message that was important to Alison C. Vesely, First Folio's co-founder and artistic director and Rice's wife.
Vesely, who died in November after a two-year battle with cancer, helped shepherd the script, which injects a smidgen of social commentary into this breezy buccaneer's tale. Vesely also chose director Janice L. Blixt. As Rice acknowledged in a recent interview, "her fingerprints are all over this." Indeed they are, particularly in the self-assured whimsy and humor that characterize the direction.
The Spanish attack on Barbados allows Peter and his fellow slaves to escape. Commandeering a ship, they recast themselves as privateers. Vowing to respect women and share their plunder equally, they sail the Caribbean, preying on French and Spanish ships, including one captained by the Spanish admiral Don Alán de Panadero (Kevin McKillip in fine form as a comically foppish villain).
McKillip, like most of the diverse cast, plays multiple roles. He also stars as Hagthorpe opposite Christopher W. Jones' Wolverston and Jaq Seifert's Ogle. Together the trio supplies the extensive exposition that accompanies this merry romp, which unfolds with a wink and nudge under Blixt's lighthearted direction.
The action plays out on set designer Angela Weber Miller's expansive, multilevel ship, and the towering sails upstage serve as the backdrop for Erin Pleake's lush, watercolor projections. Look closely and you can see the waves rolling. Greg Freeman's moody lighting also deserves mention as does Christopher Kriz's original music (paired with Rice's lyrics) and striking sound design. The sound is so impressive that cannonballs streaking across the bow of Blood's ship sounded as if the shots were fired from the back of the theater.
And what is a pirate's tale without swashbuckling? "Captain Blood" boasts fine swordplay courtesy of fight choreographer Sandys. Sandys has his colleagues battling with swords, a harpoon, heavy ropes, a fishing net and a large mallet in an athletic -- and frequently comic -- combat display.
While Sandys, McKillip, Chris Vizurraga and Almanya Narula deserve special mention, each of Blixt's talented actors impresses. And every one of them gets showcased during the rousing fight finale, best described as a stage combat version of a curtain call.
But "Captain Blood" isn't all about the battles. It's about duty and justice, compassion and loyalty, and the deep, abiding desire for freedom -- all wrapped up in a jolly good time.