Pegasus Theatre’s new adaptation of Charles Johnson’s allegorical adventure shoots right down the middle.
In adapting Evanston native Charles Johnson’s 1990 National Book Award–winning novel Middle Passage for the stage, Pegasus Theatre’s Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III use one of Johnson’s working titles, Rutherford’s Travels—meant to evoke the adventure of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Johnson’s protagonist, Rutherford Calhoun (Breon Arzell), is a freed slave from southern Illinois in 1830 who makes his way to New Orleans and, to escape debtors and a forced marriage, stows away from there on a ship called the Republic—which turns out to be on a slave-trading mission to Africa.
Johnson’s style shares DNA not just with Swift but with Melville, Stevenson and Jack London, as Rutherford learns the intricacies of life at sea and navigates the shifting factions among the ship’s crew and, eventually, its cargo, members of a tribe called the Allmuseri. Barr and Duncan, who also directs, adopt a story-theater style for their translation to the stage, an understandable impulse but one that also can create a frenetic feeling, especially in the early exposition that pings among members of the 11-actor ensemble. The staging, too, can seem too busy with arranging and rearranging of furniture on designer Elyse Balogh’s crowded platform.
Some of Johnson’s authorial flourishes can feel glossed over in the rush to fit his brief but eventful 200 pages into two and a half hours onstage. But Pegasus’s production does capture, both in the script and in Arzell’s gently layered performance, the unique isolation of Rutherford’s situation, trying to find the best way forward in his travels while on no one’s side but his own.
Pegasus Theatre Chicago at Chicago Dramatists. By Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III. Directed by Duncan. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 25mins; one intermission.