Having just killed her traitorous husband, Anne Bonny stands over his body, staring at what she has wrought.
"If you had fought like a man," she snarls, "you wouldn’t have died like a dog."
Nothing better captures the essence of "Bonny Anne Bonny," the sharp and moving production of Milwaukee playwright Liz Shipe’s latest offering. The production is a collaboration between Theatre Red and the theater department at Wisconsin Lutheran College. And what a collaboration it turns out to be.
The play is about Anne Bonny, a woman who sailed the seven seas as a pirate, captaining her ship and leading her crew. It’s an "anything you can do I can do better" theatrical paean to all that both is, and could be, a woman.
We may be about to elect the first woman president in this country, but in Shipe’s imagination, a woman has proven far more than any president could ever do. Anne proves that she can both embrace her heart while she steels her will to the task at hand.
Alicia Rice leads this troupe as Anne Bonny, aided and abetted by her first mate, Mary Read (Rae Elizabeth Pare). They search for a crew and a ship, and then conspire to rescue Anne’s captured husband and two members of her crew.
The story is a delightful one, full of danger and romance and humor, but what surrounds Shipe’s story is so eloquent it almost takes your breath away.
The first thing you see is an elaborate set designed by Christopher Kurtz. Seeing it at first glance, I was reminded of sets I’ve seen at The Rep. It is a spectacular creation that serves as three different ships: a brig, a parlor on land, a wharf and a lusty tavern. There are rope ladders and ropes and platforms and steps and barrels that all get climbed on by this athletic cast of almost 20 actors. It is one of the most intriguing sets I’ve seen all year and serves as eloquent testimony to the design and the resources of the college and its students.
Director Christopher Elst is also a certified fight choreographer, and he spares no quarter in staging fights and duels that fill the stage with sound, vision and power. The multi-actor fight at the end of the first act is an absolute sight to behold, the kind of thing you wish you could see a second and third time to see what you missed the first time around.
Some of this story gets lost amid the fireworks, but it never bothered me nor a near capacity crowd at the Raabe Theatre on the campus of WLC. The laughs came easily, and the silences smoothly in those moments when it was the only logical response to the action on the stage.
Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of Shipe’s script was the fact that each of the players had a unique and easily recognized identity. When you create a pirate crew of women, it would be easy to suspect that they would all be similar. But Shipe has fashioned a seaworthy sloop of women (and an occasional man) who all have their own reasons for being there and who all have their own hopes for what may come a-calling.
The first act of this play is the strongest as the brief second act tries too hard to wrap things up in a kind of tidy package. But learning to drive the car at top speed through the entire course is something young playwrights eventually learn, and there is no reason not to expect Shipe to continue to grow.
The contrast she draws between powerful women and obstinate men is clearly drawn when Anne’s husband (a puckish Zach Thomas Woods) tells her that it is "against the natural order for a man to be led by his wife."
But Shipe has rearranged that order with this production, and she continues to be one of the most interesting playwrights working in Milwaukee. Her next outing can’t come too soon.
"Bonny Anne Bonny" runs through Nov. 12 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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