Culture Magazine

Review: Dartmoor Prison (Goodman Theatre)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat


(L-R) James A. Williams (King Dick) and Dexter Zollicoffer (Deacon Simon) take part in a spirited conversation as Cedric Young (Governor, back) looks on.
Dartmoor Prison 

Written by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Chay Yew
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
thru Oct 23  |  tickets: $20   |  more info

Check for half-price tickets 
   Read entire review



Promising play stagnates one angry speech at a time


(L-R) Steve Pickering (Jack Dawson), Charles Stransky (Morgan), Dexter Zollicoffer (Deacon Simon) Will Allan (Billy Bunting), James A. Williams (King Dick), Cedric Young (Governor), Gavin Lawrence (Johnny Wayward) and Rian Jairell (Jeremy Stiles).


Goodman’s New Stages Amplified presents


Dartmoor Prison

Review by Catey Sullivan 

As part of the Goodman Theatre’s expanded New Stages Series, Carlyle Brown’s Dartmoor Prison sounds promising. The 13-member cast is a multi-culti cherry picking of some of the city’s best male talent, Patrick Clear, Will Allan, Keith Kupferer, Cedric Young and Dexter Zollicoffer among them . Moreover, playwright Brown has this combustible grouping trapped together in a small, fraught space. In England’s Dartmoor Prison of 1812, tensions are running high even before the introduction of a truly diabolical new device for use in disciplining (read: torturing) the prisoners.

Keith Kupferer (Mister Beasley, front) takes a moment to calm himself. Dexter Zollicoffer (Deacon Simon, back) gazes squarely at his fellow prisoners.
Then, the dialog starts, or rather a lengthy, puzzling monolog delivered by Young while sporting a detailed replica of a multi-masted schooner on his head. At this point, the production’s inherent tension fizzles like damp fuse. It’s hard to be serious about prison conditions when one of the prisoners is sporting a hat that looks like a cross between a nautically-themed Martha Stewart craft project and a child’s bathtub toy.

Still, “The Governor”, it would seem, has some gripes, chief among them the fact that someone knocked his top mast down, thus making the ship hat list to port. It’s a baffling, weirdly comedic opening for a play purportedly dealing in such somber matters as the changing racial dynamics of land and sea and Britain’s brutish attempt to regain control of the former Colonies.

The predicament of the imprisoned men, in particular, is rich with thought-provoking dramatic potential. All the prisoners were taken on the sea, because they refused to be impressed into the British navy. Away from the prison, working as shipmates, differentiations of race may well have been less important than matters of attitude and seamanship. In working together to keep their ships afloat, the brotherhood of able seaman matters just as much – arguably more – as the brotherhood of skin color.

But all that changed on land, Carlyle implies. If freed, the white prisoners are indeed free to go home. The black prisoners, on the other hand, are more likely to be sold into slavery. And where there was no formal segregation among shipmates, the Dartmoor Prison Yard is divided into white and black quadrants.

Carlyle tentatively broaches these issues only to let them stagnate in favor of an absurdist (almost Kafkaesque) court the prisoners set up to determine whether there is an informant in their midst. Throughout, director Chay Yew keeps the dialog at an unvaryingly strident, angry pitch. Speech upon speech follows speech upon speech, as the prisoners grow ever more belligerent.

Will Allan (Billy Bunting, left) and Rian Jairell (Jeremy Stiles, right) attempt to hold back a furious Steve Pickering (Jack Dawson, at center).
If the ensemble is guilty of one-note emoting (and for the most part, it is), the lead practitioner of this loud, obnoxious monotone is Steve Pickering as Jack Dawson, a fireplug of a man who has precisely two speeds: bellicose and bullying. Or so he does until nearly the close of Dartmoor Prison, when suddenly he begins addressing another prisoner in the dulcet tones of a schoolboy wooing his first sweetheart. As love stories go, this one is rather like that ship hat, which is to say it’s pretty much guaranteed to leave audience members in a state of WTF?

The one mildly bright spot in this abrasive mess is Keith Kupferer as a spinelessly clueless liaison for prisoners’ affairs. During the production’s abrupt and almost random-seeming end, he manages to wring a modicum of comedy from amid the grating absurdity. That’s hardly enough to sustain a production. For all it might have done in the way of delving race and war, Dartmoor Prison barely skims the surface.


Rating: ★★



Dartmoor Prison continues through October 23rd at Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays-Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $20, and are available by phone (312-443-3800) or online at the Goodman website. More information at 

Dartmouth Prison - Goodman theatre

All photos by Michael Brosilow 




Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog