note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
About 16 years ago, when the Pirates Museum opened on Derby Street in Salem, organizer-historian-author Robert Ellis Cahill gave me a private tour that was enlightening and fascinating. He explained Salem was the busiest port in America during the China trade, and a favorite spot among pirates and privateers. He regaled me with tales of Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, and other infamous seafarers, and pointed to where pirates, as cruel punishment, were gibbeted nearby, off Derby Wharf.
Salem State University student Zach Winston has worked for the museum for three years and knows the authentic tales of these plunderers and politicians who secretly hired pirates as privateers to privately attack and steal from others. Winston’s knowledge and experience inspired him to write “The Unfortunate Cutthroats,” a three-act, three-hour entertaining dark comedy with salty language and quotes from the Bible. Winston intersperses fascinating facts, depicting treachery, betrayal, honor and loyalty among his 11 colorful, fictitious pirate characters.
As theatergoers entered the small space at Boston Center for the Arts’ Plaza Theatre recently, (where the play ran recently for four days), Claude Amos, (David Max Gibbons), a bloodied character. is tied to a post on the deck (floor) of the pirate ship, Steadfast. His face covered with a hood, his single eye staring aimlessly into space. Amos is the captured first mate of bloodthirsty pirate Edward “the Lefty” Drake (Greg Davis).
Andrew T. Mattox II as veteran sailor Sam and Peter Murphy as 17-year-old, eager, simple apprentice Marcus discuss their captive, for whom Marcus has compassion, yet a morbidly gory curiosity. Marcus was a battered orphan, who for eight years was beaten regularly in a workhouse, from which he escaped, and joined the Steadfast’s crew.
The Steadfast’s fearless, blanket-toting Capt McCarthy (Ryan Edlinger) and his whimpering, cowering, suicidal first mate, Henry Flynn (portrayed by playwright Winston) shoot Amos’ brains out. Then Sam instructs Marcus to toss Amos into the drink, to destroy the evidence.
Thus begins a turbulent torrent of events, from shootings, discussions about cannibalism among the starving mates, mutiny, and one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed pirate captain Drake, who’s pursuing them, bent on rescuing Amos and overtaking the Steadfast.
Thing is, when Drake overtakes the ship, McCarthy’s starving remnant of a crew, who have been on the high seas 130 days, are tricked into joining forces with the fearsome Drake. He found religion, he tells them. He no longer preaches violence and torture but quotes the Bible instead. He insists his pretty, spirited daughter, Sadie, (Jenna Forristall) teach illiterate Marcus to read the Bible, which Marcus resists - until Sadie agrees to learn to play chess.
The cast includes Phil Silberman as Drake’s mate, James Hollingsworth; Christian Sterling Hegg as McCarthy’s starving mate, Boyle; Alexander Joseph as Boyle’s shipmate, Everett; and Evan Murphy as avenging French victim, Raymonde. Everyone appears to be having fun in this bloodthirsty production, which Vagabond Theatre founder-artistic director-director James Peter Sotis leads with fiendish delight.
However, “The Unfortunate Cutthroats” should be trimmed for smoother sailing.
In fact, it would be a fun attraction for North Shore tourists, especially in Salem, with its museum, the replicated 1797 Friendship vessel docked there, authentic piratical spots, artifacts, and maybe even hidden treasure!