Theater Review: “Tall Tales from Blackburn Tavern” — Ghostly Doings
By David Greenham
All in all, Tall Tales from Blackburn Tavern is an entertaining look at the things that once went bump in the night in Gloucester.
Tall Tales from Blackburn Tavern by John Minigan. Directed by Bryn Boice. Original music and lyrics by Colin Minigan. Scenic design by Lindsay G. Fuori, costume design by Chelsea Kerl, lighting design by Amanda Fallon, sound design by David Remedios, properties design/puppet artisan Steven Doucette. Staged by the Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, through September 24.
If you’re familiar with the North Shore, you are likely aware of Gloucester’s year-long celebration, Gloucester 400. To honor the anniversary, Gloucester Stage commissioned prolific Boston-based playwright John Minigan to craft their final production of the season, Tall Tales from Blackburn Tavern.
The story of Howard Blackburn is legendary in Gloucester. When frostbite from a winter fishing accident left him without fingers and toes, the people of Gloucester helped him open a business that would eventually become Blackburn’s Tavern. It makes sense that Minigan would set his story there, a place where, two centuries ago, residents went to share tales — and where the initial productions of the Gloucester Stage Company took place.
From its first moments on, Tall Tales from Blackburn Tavern never takes itself too seriously. Actor 1 (the affable Katie Pickett) is the bartender/manager of the watering hole and serves as the show’s de facto host. She’s excited to welcome the audience, “I’m kinda tickled they asked me to be a part of this whole thing, I’m not sayin’ I’m an actress, but they tell me I got chomps.” Actor 2 (the always game Jaime José Hernández) quickly corrects her: “Actually, it’s chops, not chomps.” His character is the play’s wayward historian, regularly chiming in with unnecessary details.
Actor 3 (the energetic Sadiyah Dyce Stephens) provides plenty of enthusiasm, but is willing to put her foot down when chaos approaches. For the most part, the chaos is supplied by Actor 4 (the anarchistic Paul Melendy), who arrives late because someone forgot to pick him up. They all seem to agree that Actor 2 is the culprit.
Together — or sort of together — the GSC crew members romp their way through a colorful and comic chronicle of tales and legends — the laughs range from low-hanging gags set in the days of yore to a few contemporary references.
After some zany opening antics, the show begins its journey into the past with a spooky yarn about the “ghost army” and Ebenezer Babson. The tale is set in 1692 and features a whirlwind of mysterious sightings, the sound of marching soldiers, rifle shots, and possibly an appearance by the Devil himself. It’s a twisting path of supernatural skullduggery told by Ebenezer’s nephew several generations removed, Roger Babson, the founder of Babson College.
Next, the focus jumps to the poltergeist of Dogtown, once a parish of Gloucester that was a favorite haunt of the bizarre. In 1984, a visitor from Boston, David Myska, encountered a strange giant beast with large fangs in the area. His tale resonated with the story of Amos Pillsbury who, 300 years earlier, reported a similar encounter. A werewolf? The performers report and you decide.
Once settled down in Dogtown, the actors share the story of several of the now abandoned community’s last residents. A formerly enslaved man, Cornelius Finson, was the last citizen of Dogtown, and his story is intertwined with that of Miss Sammy Stanley and others who became healers, and later midwives, as well as fortune tellers. The outsiders labeled them witches. The section ends, with appropriate eeriness, with the story of Tammy Younger, the “Queen of the Dogtown Witches.”
The most anticipated story in the show is that of Cassie, the Sea Serpent, a fabled beast who was the subject of numerous first-person sightings in the early years of the 19th century. The cast and playwright pull out all the stops for this amusing encounter between man and sea-critter.
Minigan’s fast-paced, 90-minute script offers plenty of opportunities for these talented actors to morph at will. Each performer tackles multiple characters and scene changes via a variety of quick costume changes and props. Because so many roles flash by so quickly — there are few moments of precious calm in this storm of tall tales — don’t expect much depth amid the comic wordplay. A fundamental support for the fly-by-night narratives: wonderfully crafted shadow puppets (managed seamlessly by Ryan Natcharian) that cavort across three screens placed at the back of Lindsay G. Fuori’s functional bar set.
Pickett as Actor 1 begins with a mirthful bang, but her characters seem to become fuzzier and fuzzier over the course of the proceedings. Hernández, as Actor 2, supplies strong moments, but the skeptical streak in his characters sometimes works against him. Dyce Stephens, as Actor 3, is determined and fierce; the problem is that we don’t always know why she is doing what she is doing. Still, the performer has got plenty of spunk and is consistently fun to watch.
In terms of comic invention, the show belongs to Actor 4, Melendy. As Boston-area theater fans saw in his Elliot Norton award-winning performance in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (also penned by Minigan), the performer has superb timing and adroit physicality. All of these skills are on brilliant display in Tall Tales from Blackburn Tavern. He is consistently hilarious throughout. There’s a section during the sea serpent story where he plays four or five odd and/or silly characters in a row. His lineup of zanies is the highlight of the production.
The music and lyrics from Colin Minigan could have provided a welcome respite from all the storytelling, but they are staged with the same level of frenetic activity as the stories. Director Bryn Boice keeps most of the craziness orderly enough to follow, although there are a few moments, especially in the longer and multileveled Dogtown section, that veer into the outer limits.
With Tall Tales from Blackburn Tavern, Gloucester Stage ends its season on a helter-skelter high note. There is not much self-reflection here, and a few of the sidebar references to the less attractive parts of the city’s ghost-ridden history are disconcerting. Still, all in all, this is an entertaining look at the things that once went bump in the night in Gloucester.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.