"Fame and fortune?" growls said sea rover. "Or true love?"
Unsurprisingly, there is a meagre show of hands for the latter, but the three women, slightly sheepish now, are gifted stalks of roses. Visibly pleased with themselves, the unromantics receive faux gold doubloons. Though some of us don't yet know it, this small interaction will set the tone for the ensuing evening, where every small choice triggers a different outcome...
A mea culpa before getting to the meat of things: I'd initially agreed to attend Pirates of The Pearl with the aim of relaxing and relinquishing all decision-making after a hellishly hectic week. So picture my surprise upon realising that I'd landed face down, a** up in an open world game rather resembling Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Forget breaking the fourth wall — the entire theatre is the stage and you're in it!
Co-directors and co-producers Eric Paci and Brian Wang are world-makers. Together, the thespians have collaborated on over a dozen shows and created four theatrical experiences of their own: Ship of Dreams: The Titanic Experience, which swapped the traditional setting of a stage for a boat on The Bund; two iterations of steamy number Moulin Dream; and Pirates of The Pearl.
The most recent of these is moored around the formation of the Republic of Pirates, and drags the audience right into the heart of the drama between different pirate factions: the Blue, Red and Purple fleets, not to mention a fourth 'wild card.' At the end of each night, only one party can prevail, and the audience purportedly plays a big part in this outcome.
Powerhouse performers play characters both historical and fictional, from Ching Shih (1775-1844), the Chinese 'Pirate Queen' of the Red Flag Fleet, to Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of Caribbean film franchise (2003-2017).
Albeit a slightly subdued world premiere on October 21, 2023, Pirates of The Pearl has since picked up steam and saw a completely packed house on Saturday, November 4. (Only two more shows are scheduled for November 11 and 18.)
To get the audience warmed up, the experience begins with a sit-down segment, allowing a whole crew of aerialists, dancers, fire breathers and singers to flex their muscular, musical chops.
Not an inch of The Pearl's three floors is wasted on these cats as they swing from the rafters and strut between tables of delighted guests swigging themed rum cocktails. When not recounting tales of love longed for and lost, grudges deeper than ravines, and enemies to be slain, the artists are shinning up silks, spitting fireballs, or shimmying to the vocals of Fergie or Madonna. What fun!
Bumptious number follows bumptious number, and soon, the spectators themselves are ready for some booty-shaking.
With little warning, the performers are then set loose upon the upper floors of the sprawling temple-turned-theatre and it's up to us to chase them down and engage with them.
At first, the thought of trying to tell characters, NPCs and other audience members apart while checking off a list of tasks feels like heavy — Herculean, even. But the pressure melts away when I realise that — with the exception of actual murder — there are zero real consequences to my actions.
Before long, guess who finds herself striking bargains with bandits? Or racing up and down staircases in search of a siren’s kiss? (I got that smackeroo too.)
As anyone would expect, Pirates of The Pearl is replete with swashbuckling moments and sword fights. That said, the climax isn't onstage, but in the fertile space between performer and spectator, a space that the actors completely raze to the ground as they rope members of the audience into all sorts, from riddles to dances, and even heated thumb wars.
Those hoping to find escapism will discover something even better: the gift of being fully present — it's near impossible not to be in the moment when the verbal and the visual wrestle for your attention in an intensely vivid environment.
So trust the actors and thrust yourselves into the work.
Voluntarily. Valiantly. Vivaciously.
Pirates of the Pearl
Co-directors and producers: Eric Paci and Brian Wang
Writer and set designer: Christy Blanco
Costume designer: Andrea Salazar
Running time: Approximately 2 hours with no intermission.