Oak Brook's First Folio premieres 'Captain Blood' swashbuckler
When First Folio Theatre executive producer David Rice proposed adapting Rafael Sabatini's 1922 swashbuckler "Captain Blood" five years ago, he had only one condition: that Nick Sandys play the titular role of the 17th-century British physician turned Caribbean pirate.
Rice's wife, artistic director Alison C. Vesely, agreed. However, Sandys, a sought-after actor and award-winning fight choreographer, was booked solid. Eventually, the trio settled on an early 2017 run.
Unfortunately, the world premiere -- which begins previews Wednesday at Oak Brook's Mayslake Peabody Estate -- is bittersweet, coming two months after Vesely died following a two-year battle with cancer.
"Her fingerprints are all over this," Rice said of his wife of 35 years, who played an integral part in shaping their final collaboration.
Vesely gave Rice notes on the script and the couple hosted readings in their Clarendon Hills living room, the last taking place in October. Except for some tweaking, that will be the script First Folio will produce.
"We all agreed doing this original script -- which has so much of Alison in it creatively -- makes it easier for us to deal with her passing," Rice said. "She's with us every day in rehearsal, looking right over our shoulder."
"You can't work at First Folio without having Alison's spirit with you," said Sandys, artistic director for Chicago's acclaimed Remy Bumppo Theatre.
The humor that characterized Vesely and Rice's relationship informs the play, he said. And before she died, Vesely chose Heather Chrisler as the female lead Arabella Bishop and Janice L. Blixt to direct.
It was important to Vesely that a woman direct, said Rice.
"We didn't want too much testosterone. It's a romance," he said. "It's also the story of Arabella's journey, so it was essential to have a female in the director's chair."
Sandys describes Rice's adaptation -- which draws mostly from Sabatini's historical adventure novel but tips its hat to the 1935 film starring Errol Flynn -- as a sweeping pirate tale made up of dashing heroes, feisty heroines, swordfights and sea battles.
Rice had grand plans not easily adapted to the stage. But the creative team never balked.
"Not once did anyone say 'we can't possibly do that,'" he said.
So far, Sandys has suffered the only injury and it didn't come at the point of a sword.
"I got whacked in the ear by an elbow," said Sandys, whose combat choreography for "Captain Blood" incorporates a bit of flash as well as humor.
Whatever its style, says Sandys, stage combat must advance the narrative and illuminate the characters.
"A fight shouldn't stop the show," he said, "it should continue the show."
Sandys' presence ensures it will, said Rice.
"Because he's such a fine actor and director, when he choreographs stage fights he doesn't choreograph a series of movements, he tells a story in each fight, which makes it easier for his combatants. They're not memorizing a series of moves, they're telling a story," said Rice.
Sandys has played adventurers in the past, but he acknowledges "Captain Blood" may be his last swashbuckler.
"I'm getting a bit on the mature side for playing these roles," he joked.
Rice conceived "Captain Blood" as pure escapist family fare. The tone is rollicking, but at the core of this escapist tale is a story of a man fighting injustice. To that end, it must balance high spirits with a bit of gravitas.
"I liken it to melodrama," Sandys said. "The emotions have to be large, but it has to be truthful."
Walking that tightrope thrills the actor/director who last year played Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare's Prospero and Henry Higgins. He also directed three plays.
"It's been an amazing year," he said. "As an actor, I want to exhaust myself ... It's like surfing. You're either on the crest of the wave or you're dead."
The greatest thrill, he says, is taking the audience along for the ride.
But for Rice, the greatest sorrow is that his wife, First Folio's champion, isn't able to join them.
"I'm not saying there aren't moments that bring me to tears," Rice said of putting on the show without Vesely. "But far and away it's a joy to work on this piece. In many ways, I'm working with Alison."
• Alison C. Vesely's memorial service takes place at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. See firstfolio.org to reserve a ticket.
"Captain Blood"When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; from Wednesday, Jan. 25, through Feb. 26. No 4 p.m. show Jan. 28
Where: Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st. St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067or firstfolio.org