by Susan Dodd
This past weekend, in four rolicking performances of Julie Howard's much-loved musical "A Tale of Blackbeard," several hundred lucky people got to see that talent in an extravagant display.
The play itself, ingeniously directed by Charles Temple and Desiree Ricker, has something for everybody -- comedy and tragedy, history and legend, conflict and romance.. The show's infectious music, enhanced by surpassingly witty and original lyrics, keeps playing in your head long after the performance has ended. The staging, costumes, lighting, and sound are inventive and powerfully effective.
Above all, though, the actors' performances are what astonish and bowl you over. From Matthew Tolson's compelling posession of the title role to the menacing chorus of pirates and the delightfully bawdy gaggle of village girls, there is not one single performer who gives his or her role anything less than everything. Katy Mitchell and Bill Cole, as the lascivious cooks of their respective crews engaging in a (somewhat) culinary tryst, are simply incomparable. Ocracoke's fussbudget watchman (Bill Jones) and his domineeering wife (Sundae Horn) raise bickering to high art. Their well-born daughter Elizabeth (Samantha Styron) and her brave young love interest, the pirate Richard Evans (Waylon Underwood), convey a sweet yearning that has the audience rooting for them every step of the way. As Elizabeth's little sister Katherine, Mariah Temple (in the performance I attended -- she shares the role with Maren Donlan) sings with the voice of an angel. Trisha Davis, playing Miss Euphemia, proprietor of the island "boarding house" (some might say "bawdy house"), portrays a warmth and integrity that make you wish she still lived among us. Even those in smaller roles -- Aurora O'Neal as the scullery maid, Wade Holloman as William Howard, and Daniel Isbrecht as the helmsman -- perform with energy and distinction.
And looming over all these memorable characters with poignancy and menace stands the dark presence of Matthew Tolson's indelible Blackbeard.
In recent years, musical "revivals" have proliferated on Broadway. "Remakes" of classic films are increasingly popular in Hollywood. Too often these recycled productions leave audiences wondering why anyone thought they needed to be made again -- usually with lesser talent. Only rarely do revivals offer anything new, let alone better.
"A Tale of Blackbeard" enjoyed a twenty-year run on the island, from 1974 to 1994. Now, exactly twenty years later, it returns to delight the Ocracoke community and its visitors.
This new production, however, is far more than a nostalgic recreation. It is amazingly fresh with new depths of subtlety and complexity. This is especially evident in the character of Blackbeard himself, in whom we see the conflict and deep humanity not of a rehashed two-dimensional legend, but of a man in full, a soul struggling in terrible isolation. We know, as we have always known, that Blackbeard's violent demise is imminent. This time, however, we don't just shiver at the spectacle. We grieve for the man we've been allowed to glimpse behind the mask of the cruel pirate, the man who might have been.
Performances of "A Tale of Blackbeard," produced under the auspices of Ocracoke Alive, will resume June 9th and will play each Monday night through August 11th. Advance tickets can be purchased online at ocracokealive.org.
Thanks to guest writer and part-time Ocracoke resident, Susan Dodd, for this wonderful review.
Photos courtesy of Didi McConnell at Dragon Ridge Photography. Didi and her husband, J.T., are longtime Ocracoke visitors and remember "A Tale of Blackbeard" from 1987-1994. They were happy to see it brought back again. Click on the photos below to make them bigger and to go through slideshow.