Two years ago, Eric Schaeffer embarked on his journey to direct Signature Theatre’s world-premiere musical “Blackbeard” with a modest vision. But when he heard the tunes written for the show by composer Dana P. Rowe and lyricist John Dempsey, he set a new course. “The original idea was very minimalist,” Schaeffer says. “But the more you actually listened to the songs that they wrote — they were so epic in scope, I was like, ‘I think we need to blow this up.’ ” Signature ultimately spun a globe-trotting tale about Blackbeard’s quest to raise an undead pirate army, complete with special effects, elaborate sword fights and puppetry, and an immersive pirate ship set. Schaeffer, costume designer Erik Teague and scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III walked Express through the show’s ambitious aesthetic.
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; through July 14, $40-$98.
1. Blackbeard’s Signature style
When it came to shaping the look of Blackbeard (Chris Hoch), Teague drew from a woodcut of the real-life swashbuckler, then added flourishes of his own. “How would he have come by these clothes?” Teague asks. “I decided he would get it the way he gets anything — he steals it. So at one time, this was probably a really lavish coat that he nicked off of somebody, and has worn it into the dirt — or the sea, as it were.“
2. Always ready for a fight
Caesar (Kevin McAllister) is based on the real West African pirate of that name. In this iteration, he’s Blackbeard’s imposing first mate, whom Schaeffer gleefully deems “a badass.” “He has very functional, fightable pirate clothing,” Teague says. “It still has a sweeping gesture to it, it’s very full, but it’s very distressed. He lives in it, he works in it, he fights in it.”
3. Bursting onto the scene
Roger, a stowaway on Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, at one point comes popping up out of a trapdoor. Because the deck is only 18 inches above the ground, actor Rory Boyd must lie flat on a mechanism that wheels him about 20 feet from backstage to the door. “Thank God he’s tiny,” Schaeffer says.
4. The machinations of theater
The trapdoor isn’t the set’s only hidden trick: An automated table rises from the stage, part of the deck spins as a turntable, and fog bursts out of grating in the stage. “Not only is [the set] this big piece of sculpture,” dePoo says, “it has to be this operating piece of automation.”
5. Setting sights high
The ceiling is packed with haze machines, pirate sails, ropes that the actors swing on and an array of lights (including lanterns that drop down). Those elements prove crucial to establishing each setting, as the story sails to India, Japan and even Valhalla. “The space constantly morphs,” dePoo says.
6. Reef madness
Cursed to existence as a living coral reef, the sea witch Dominique (Nova Y. Payton) wears a dress adorned with marine life, creating the “sense that everything is growing on her,” Schaeffer says. “Her first line is, ‘Come closer so I can see you,’ ” Teague adds. “That made me think that maybe the coral and some of her sea life has crept up her face.”
7. A sea change
A manifestation of the sea, La Mer (Maria Egler) watches from above as she encourages Blackbeard to continue his quest. “Early on she was a little bit of a mermaid, and then she became more of a sea goddess,” Teague says. “She has multiple layers of custom-dyed silks that are cartridge-pleated to her skirt, so it looks like undulating water when she moves.”
8. Blending into the background
The backdrop — a wall conveying the ship’s plundering past — is engulfed in bones, pearls and fragments of gold, which were blended to create a subtly unsettling melange. “We didn’t want to just say, ‘Oh, look, there’s a skeleton,’ ” says dePoo, who tried to capture the “haunting feeling” he felt from his past experiences diving to explore shipwrecks near his hometown of Key West, Fla. “How do you pay homage to the legend of Blackbeard, the battles that were lost, the battles that were won and the treasures that were stolen? How do you do all of that scenically and not make it an eye roll?”