THEATER REVIEW : It's Rough Sailing for 'Pirates' Tales of Past, Present : * Ineffective play tells story of a notorious woman who lived on the seas as a man, and a present-day teacher's view of her.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

The authentic Anne Bonney lived her life as a man and became one of the Carib bean's more notorious and dangerous pirates during the era when white sails rose stiff against high winds and lonely ships were ripe for plundering.

Playwright Mark Lee's choice of Bonney as role model for his male-bashed present-day historian heroine in "Pirates" at the Road Theatre is sort of like presenting her namesake William Bonney (Billy the Kid) as a role model in Los Angeles high schools.

The conceit does give Lee a springboard for his sexual-political agenda, which has college history teacher Helen Raymond longing for Bonney's freedom from male domination in her struggle to bring new ideas into the school's history department. Among minor flaws in the conceit is Raymond's ignoring of Bonney's cross-dressing as a weapon that gained her her freedom.

Political agendas aside, Lee's one-note pageant presents its ideas firmly, but they do not grow out of human drama. The characters use movie-of-the-week speak and never confront anything more dramatically viable than the getting or losing of a job because you're a woman. It's an ineffective setup in this case because the job hunter in question, Raymond's protegee, Rebecca Skolnick, is self-centered, confused, vindictive and an escapist to boot.

Brad Hills has directed the work with imagination and some fire, especially in the 18th-Century scenes, in which Taylor Gilbert is superlative as the notorious Anne, with a rough-textured interior and a flashing surface. If some of the quick transitions from one period to the next are a bit too leisurely for complete effectiveness, details like having a character from one century accidentally bump into one from another period help to bridge the eras.

Nealla Gordon is all self-containment as Raymond, which is right for her slow build to anger at the end. Michael Dempsey is excellent as a contrasting fellow teacher and Anne's bumbling pirate partner. Lance Guest makes impeccable choices in defining the intricacies of a murderous pirate on Anne's ship and Raymond's intelligent, understanding department chair. Christopher Michaels effectively doubles as another job applicant and a lecherous pseudo parson with unspiritual things on his mind, and Karen S. Gregan is strong as both Raymond's protegee and Anne's cross-dressing sidekick Mary Read.

Chris Mills' setting is inventive, but sometimes cumbersome. David Flad's lighting could have more of a dark tone, and Alison Franklin's costumes couldn't be more appropriate. But someone should have told Gilbert that Anne's lifetime as a man would have been seriously jeopardized when they noticed he was wearing lipstick.


What: "Pirates."

Location: Road Theatre, 14141 Covello St., Unit 9-D, Van Nuys.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Ends June 5.

Price: $12.50.

Call: (818) 785-6175.

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