Somewhere on the high seas of the theater world, past the Straits of Literary Drama and far south of the Reef of Cultural Aspirations, lies a small island that hides a treasure of comedy gold.
It is this island that the Gaslight Theatre explores again and again, and the current show, The Curse of the Pirate's Gold, digs up some of its finest work.
It's not that the theater's course has shifted. The stage still overflows with creaky plotlines, ham acting, hokey stage effects, anachronistic pop music and jokes so bad they'd embarrass a Laffy Taffy wrapper. Rather, they all come together in a perfect storm of high-quality, lowbrow craftsmanship.
This time, the story, penned by director Peter Van Slyke, dresses up the familiar characters in pirate garb.
The hero of the tale is Dr. Bartholomew Steele, a prisoner sent to do hard labor in Jamaica for a crime he didn't commit. He's held by the villain, Capt. Reginald Spaulding, the new governor of Britain's Caribbean colonies. These two, of course, vie for the hand of the pure-hearted heroine, Prudence Fairchild.
Throw in a plucky band of pirates, a toadying lackey and a duplicitous Spanish dancer, and you have all the ingredients for a swashbuckling, high-seas adventure.
The story is formulaic, but it manages to bring in a breath of fresh air: Between the good and the bad, there are middle-ground characters who switch their allegiances, helping to turn the tables on the villain in the end. But there are enough surprise double- and triple-crosses to keep you wondering what's going to happen next.
Because of the busy performance schedule, the roles are played by different actors night to night. Under Van Slyke's direction, the cast that I saw was in predictably fine form: Todd Thompson as the brave Dr. Steele, Sean MacArthur as the dastardly Capt. Spaulding, and Heather Dispensa as the lovely Prudence.
This was the first Gaslight show I've seen without veteran Joe Cooper (at least in the show I attended), and I initially wondered how it would fare without his anarchic presence. I needn't have worried; the cast members were more than capable of cracking themselves up.
That cracking up—where one performer is able to get another to break out of character and laugh—is one of the great charms of the Gaslight Theatre. In a more serious play, such behavior would be disruptive (though it might make some dramas a lot more entertaining). Here, however, we're never asked to suspend our disbelief, and the actors' unscripted antics suggest that they're having as much fun as the audience.
Typically at Gaslight, a song here or there sits too low in an actor's vocal range to be sung clearly, but that was never the case this time around. On the night I attended, every single song sounded great. Standouts included Tarreyn Van Slyke singing Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It," and Sarah Vanek and MacArthur doing a duet of "Quando, Quando, Quando."
The choice of songs is spot-on. When Dr. Steele and Prudence first declare their love to each other, they sing David Cassidy's "I Think I Love You." The shifting chords of the chorus create a sense of uncertainty, as if the singers—Thompson and Dispensa—were discovering the sentiment as they expressed it.
Scenic designer Tom Benson's sets have their usual delightful pop-up-book sensibility. Out at sea, two-dimensional waves rock back and forth as a painted sky scrolls overhead. Back in the harbor, a pirate ship engages the fort in an impressive exchange of cannon fire.
Benson's scene-painting is also impressive, particularly his twilight beach lit by a glowing lighthouse. When the music begins, David Darland's skillful lighting makes the sky turn an unearthly magenta.
Renee Cloutier's costumes are equally evocative. When Consuela (Vanek) throws her lot in with the pirates, her new buccaneer apparel retains the colors and lace that established her visual identity as a Spanish dancer. After Dr. Steele escapes his captors, he adds a high-class vest, but his still-visible prisoner rags suggest that he hasn't changed at heart.
Surprisingly, the weakest portion of this production is the oleo, the short musical revue that follows each performance. Usually, the oleo breaks loose in manic absurdity, topping the fun of what's come before. This time, it feels too tame.
The oleo's Gilligan's Island theme is perfectly chosen to go with the high-seas theme. It's a delight to see the actors' impersonations of the TV show's iconic characters (aided again by Cloutier's costumes), and their performances are fine. But the sketches fail to capture the spirit of the original show, and the song selection feels more arbitrary than clever.
Even at its weakest, though, The Curse of the Pirate's Gold is a pleasure to watch, and the Gaslight Theatre proves once again that it is one of Tucson's entertainment treasures.