The Accidental Patriot
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 2, 2008
Stolen Chair Theatre Company's latest play has the wonderfully long title The Accidental Patriot: The Lamentable Tragedy of the Pirate Desmond Connelly, Irish by Birth, English by Blood, and American by Inclination. The style of the show is embedded in that mouthful: here is a play that mashes up classic swashbuckling romance (the part of the title before the colon) with classical Greek tragedy, and playful meta-theatrical parody with a serious investigation of what it means to be an American (both in the 1770s, when the play is set, and today).
It's a mashup whose lumps don't always smooth out, and indeed they probably cannot; conceiver/director Jon Stancato admits as much in a program note, saying that the development of the piece "revealed one particularly unexpected parallel between the two genres: awkwardness." That said, The Accidental Patriot is a great deal of fun, thanks to the exquisitely smart script by Kiran Rikhye, the fluent and exciting staging offered by Stancato, some terrific performances (notably Liza Wade White as the play's heroine; Sarah Stephens as the other principal female character, an outspoken and noble Irish-American saloon proprietress named Cassie Walker; David Berent as the tragedy's key antagonist, Lord Jarvis; and Noah Schultz as the liveliest and funniest member of the chorus), an Irish- and American-tinged folk score arranged by Emily Otto and Raphael Biran and performed mostly by Biran, and a nifty set by David Bengali that—at its finest, depicting the deck of a pirate ship—is absolutely stunning.
The story of The Accidental Patriot concerns a young man named Desmond Connelly, who as the title tells us was born in Ireland, the son of a poor Irish woman and a British military man. When we first meet him, in 1772, he's in Boston, working successfully as a privateer in the service of King George III. When Desmond's friend, the budding American patriot Thomas Beauford, is insulted and then murdered by a contingent of British soldiers under the command of Lord Benjamin Jarvis, Desmond vows revenge. This takes the unlikely form of Desmond's assumption of Thomas's cause: he becomes a pirate, determined to plunder the ships of his former employer/now enemy King George...and to kill Jarvis.
Rikhye's script packs in an enormous number of surprise turns, particularly given that the play's antecedents are so familiar to us. So I don't want to give much away here, lest I spoil your experience at the show. All I will reveal is the one completely obvious turn of the plot, namely that Desmond and Jarvis's only daughter, Georgiana, meet and fall instantly in love (though their romance takes a sort of Beatrice/Benedick route before either of them completely realizes what has happened).
I'll also tell you that the outlines of a proper Greek tragedy are adhered to, including the utilization of a chorus of patriots who speak and often sing exposition and reactions to the plot's developments. But the overall tone of The Accidental Patriot is far more light-hearted than anything Sophocles every cooked up, due in no small part to the large energetic cast, the numerous battle sequences (choreographed by Barbara Charlene), and the detached and sometimes parodic tone of Rikhye's text. Scenes lifted from the swashbuckler films that are the play's main model are often hilariously executed; there is one in particular where Desmond dines with his enemy Jarvis, Jarvis's son, and Georgiana, that is extremely funny. Stancato's lively transitions between scenes also keep the show's tone and pace swift and not too serious.
And yet, all of that said, there is a serious purpose to the proceedings, and not merely the somewhat academic one of seeing what happens when two genres—one from pop culture, one from classical drama—collide. At the core of The Accidental Patriot is a very timely and resonant consideration of what freedom means, and what personal choices are required to achieve and maintain it. The bravery and integrity of many of the story's supporting characters—Thomas Beauford, Cassie Walker—contain the real seeds of patriotism that underlay the creation of America. How many Americans today would sacrifice as they do in the play?
The Accidental Patriot is the most ambitious project yet for the still-young Stolen Chair Theatre Company. Resident playwright Kiran Rikhye's writing continues to astonish in its skillfulness and versatility and humor. Her co-artistic director Jon Stancato flexes his muscles as one of his generation's most imaginative and daring directors. It must be conceded that there's some unevenness to this show, but in terms of both audacity and entertainment value it's a fine example of indie theater at its best...and a harbinger of still greater things to come from this remarkable troupe.