THEATER REVIEWS : Expert Crew Keeps ‘Billy Budd’ Sailing Smoothly


Any production of Herman Melville’s seaworthy masterpiece “Billy Budd” is a tough nut to crack. There are not only its philosophical and social implications to sort out, but the very personal psychological veins in its rock-hard core.

Cypress College’s production, directed by Kaleta Brown, is a visually impressive staging of the Louis O. Coxe-Robert Chapman adaptation. Robert Mumm’s lighting provides an almost Renaissance chiaroscuro that gives Linda Garen Smith’s evocative scenic and costume design the right, realistic look. The deck, cabins and rigging and uniforms of the H.M.S. Indomitable look their 1798 period in tone and feel.

Brown has also been able to cast the central figures impeccably. In a generally superior company, Chip Boyd’s Capt. Vere, Howard R. Patterson’s Claggart, John M. Bradaric’s Billy Budd and Milton Polsky’s Dansker seem made to play these parts.


Bradaric’s Billy has a way of responding to the other seamen with a mental hesitancy that matches his tendency to stammer. It persuasively defines the character, along with Bradaric’s physical sense of innocence, like a young lion stretching in the sun. The inhumanity of Claggart’s passion for control is implicit in Patterson’s characterization, his rich line readings echoing a small-minded man’s pomposity and self-involvement.

In an otherwise valid production, what Brown has not given her cast is the core of raw maleness that should permeate even the decks and masts. The crew members’ adoption of the handsome Billy after his impressment from a merchant ship and a territory-defining combat with Maintop Capt. Jenkins (volatile Christian J. Bargados) is what would be called male bonding today. The crew’s adoration not only of Billy’s innocence but his physical beauty was called honesty then. There is little of that feeling here. And there are a few moments when the sailors are more like Errol Flynn’s jolly pirates than a crew paralyzed by fear.


Nor is there any evidence of the almost sexual tension, explicit in the novel and the play, that grows between Claggart and the new boy. Claggart is drawn to Billy as the others are, and it is his fear of that very dangerous weakness in his image of himself that breeds the need to destroy Billy. Without that tension there is no reason for Claggart’s overwhelming wrath or their tragic Dance of Death.

Boyd’s Vere is fine, a sane, intelligent man torn between his affection for Billy and the letter of military law after Billy accidentally kills Claggart. Boyd’s subtext is full and affecting.

Mark Mikawa, Stephen A. Shanahan and particularly Travis L. Wood are excellent as the junior officers, with detailed characterizations defining their weighing of uneven balances in the barrel-head court that condemns the boy. Polsky’s shuffling doomsayer Dansker, as Melville’s voice of reason, is exemplary.

Raymond Reyes is a fine, slimy Squeak, Claggart’s treacherous accomplice; and in the crew, Dan Reutter’s exuberant Irishman O’Daniel is noticeable for the reality of his portrait. Dialects, difficult for many actors, are detail perfect when coach James Taulli’s guidance has taken.



“Billy Budd,” Cypress College Campus Theatre, 9200 Valley View St., Cypress. Final performance tonight at 8. $7. (714) 821-6360. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. John M. Bradaric: Billy Budd

Howard R. Patterson: John Claggart

Chip Boyd: Capt. Edward Fairfax Vere

Milton Polsky: The Dansker

Christian J. Bargados: Maintop Capt. Jenkins

Raymond Reyes: Squeak

Mark Mikawa: First Officer Seymour

Stephen A. Shanahan: 1st Lt. Ratcliffe

Travis L. Wood: Sailing Master Bordman Wyatt

Dan Reutter: Maintopman O’Daniel

A Cypress College Theatre Arts and Dance Dept. production of Melville’s classic. Directed by Kaleta Brown. Scenic/costume design: Linda Garen Smith. Lighting design: Robert Mumm. Makeup design: Brenda Ivelisse Hull. Sound design: David Smith. Properties design: Ronald Voss. Dialect coach: James Taulli. Stage manager: Amelia E. Valdez.