Smile Politely

Oh to be a pirate…

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I am so not the target audience for Parkland College Theatre’s How I Became a Pirate. For one thing, I’m not wild about musicals. I appreciate the artistry and the difficulty, of course, but I’m a black-box, no-set, exposed-nerve, two-hander kind of guy. For another thing, I’m 38 years old.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, as I took my seat last Thursday night for the show’s opening night performance, the actual target audience was all over the place. The kids in the theater outnumbered the adults three to one, and most of the youngsters wore pirate hats and carried little foam swords (all provided by the theater’s staff). They talked animatedly as they waited for the lights to dim. There were giggles and whispers and lots of “Aarrghs” all around me, and I couldn’t help but smile. The joint was lousy with target audience.

When the lights finally did go down, the production’s director, Kyle A. Thomas, bounded onto the stage to greet the audience and give the usual “turn off your cell phones” announcement. He also let everyone know that, after the show, the kids were welcome to come up on stage and have their photos taken with the cast. I’ve seen announcements like this before, naturally, but I was charmed by Thomas’s enthusiasm, himself looking a bit the pirate. [Full disclosure: I worked with Thomas for a couple of semesters at the University of Illinois, where he was technical director for Inner Voices Social Issues Theatre group. He’s a sharp, hyperarticulate, energetic fellow, and his knowledge of and facility with both modern and ancient plays is impressive. When he directed The Music Man for Champaign Park District last summer, I was genuinely taken aback. It seemed an odd fit at first. But, having seen his second local foray into youth-oriented theatre, I can attest that the fit is just fine.]

Parkland Theatre’s decision to mount a children’s show–a show for children acted primarily by adults—is an astute one, and they’ve had good fortune in this area before. Their production of Pinkalicious, two seasons ago, sold out very quickly and delighted the packed houses each and every night. I remember thinking, upon the show’s announcement, that it sounded like a license to print money. I don’t know if How I Became a Pirate will see the same clamor for tickets, but I can say that the children (and parents) I observed opening night had a very good time indeed. It doesn’t hurt that the show clocks in under an hour, so neither the attention spans of the children nor the patience of the adults is too greatly taxed. Added to which, I’ve been told by a source inside the production staff that the line for post-show photos with the pirate characters stretches further and further up the aisle every night. 

It occurs to me that I’m supposed to be reviewing the play itself, so let me clear my throat and get down to business…

How I Became a Pirate is a trifle: a sweet, bite-sized little confection (or maybe I’m thinking of a truffle. I get them confused. Anyhoo.). The songs are cute but not memorable, and the characters are simultaneously enjoyable and about as deep as a cereal box. None of these observations are criticisms, by the way. To criticize a 55-minute show about a boy who meets some pirates and learns their ways—all in time to get home for dinner—would be unbecoming. This isn’t How I Became a Pirate: the Roberto Clemente Story, as written by August Wilson (although I would have watched that play on the edge of my seat). To be fair to the show at hand, let me answer a few pertinent questions:

Do the actors look and sound like pirates? Yes, they do. The costumes by Malia Andrus look fresh off the picture book page. Captain Braid Beard (played by David Heckman) and his comrade, Sharktooth (David Dillman), look splendid (if a little clean), as do the rest of the cast. And while none of the characters are particularly well-developed, each member of the cast puts his or her own stamp on scurvy dogs with names like Swill, Pierre, and, yes, even Scurvy Dog. Heckman and Dillman stand out the most, the former cutting a commanding figure as the pirate captain, and the latter happily chewing scenery as the “scary” member of the crew. And young Kyle Klein II, as Jeremy Jacob, has enough enthusiasm and charisma to convince children to follow him on an adventure. Should any local company be looking for a Peter Pan in the near future, I’d recommend him.

Does the set look good? You bet it does. Between the impressive, rotating pirate ship set designed by Bernard Wolff and the terrific lighting and sound effects (by Bob Weber and Evan Forbes, respectively), the show has surprises and genuinely fun moments, including a storm at sea.

Finally, and most importantly, Will kids enjoy the show? Absolutely. This isn’t a show to sit through reverently, nor is it a laborious beast of a play with multiple intermissions and a convoluted plot. This is playtime. And, of all the things available to distract youngsters for an hour or so, what could be better than taking them to the theater and letting them see a storybook come to life?

How I Became a Pirate will continue this week, concluding its run at Parkland College Theatre on Saturday. Performances are October 10, 11, and 12 at 7 p.m. (a Saturday matinee was scheduled for the 12th, but it has sold out). For tickets, call 217-351-2528 or visit the Parkland website.

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photos by Sean O’Connor

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