GLOUCESTER — The title of “Tall Tales from Blackburn Tavern” suggests an evening of stories full of wonder, magic, mystery, and humor told in an intimate pub setting. But playwright John Minigan, whose “Noir Hamlet” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offered such joyous interpretations of familiar stories, seems overwhelmed by the 400-plus years of Gloucester history he had to draw from.
For this world premiere production, commissioned as part of the city’s “Gloucester 400″ celebration, Minigan focuses on his four storytellers — Jaime José Hernández, Paul Melendy, Katie Pickett, and Sadiyah Dyce Stephens — and they oddly dominate the proceedings rather than the stories. Each of these storytellers is defined in such broad, cartoonish strokes, their assigned personality traits obscure some of the potentially fascinating characters central to the history of the harbor city.
The result is a mishmash of sometimes humorous, never scary, rarely poignant tall tales that seem designed for an outdoor fair rather than a tavern. The most theatrical effect is Ryan Natcharian’s array of shadow puppets, which are cleverly coordinated across three upstage screens with the movement of the performers.
Although the script tells us several times that “the only way to get to the truth is to examine it closely,” Minigan never digs deeper than the surface, relying on a litany of dates and names, glossing over human struggles and sorrow.
Some of the tales with the most potential revolve around “Dogtown,” a once vibrant neighborhood abandoned for a settlement closer to the harbor. Tales of the “outcasts” — women labeled “witches,” formerly enslaved people, cross-dressers, and others — could have explored the compassion and cruelty that exist cheek by jowl, but instead we get brief snapshots of several people that feel more like encyclopedia entries than stories.
Most disappointing is the tale of Cassie, the Gloucester Sea Serpent, a legend that fits perfectly in a town that has lived and died by its relationship with the sea. We are teased throughout the proceedings by one performer’s superstition that by telling the story they will incur the wrath of the monster, but after all that buildup, the story provides little excitement or even a coherent plotline. The best moment is delivered by Melendy, who morphs into a series of characters who’ve seen the serpent. When he takes a moment to portray a fisherman who tells of seeing the serpent acknowledge the fishing boat and its occupants before swimming away, we have a glimpse of the wonder that shapes the determined individuals who make their living in a town so reliant on the power of nature.
Director Bryn Boice, who has earned awards for her ability to find nuance in scripts and coax complex performances from actors, seems as uncertain as Minigan about where the focus should be. Although the song that repeats occasionally throughout the proceedings (props to Hernandez for his accordion playing) reminds us that “the test of the story is the way that it’s told,” these tall tales lack cohesion and connection and miss the opportunity to explore Gloucester’s fascinating past.
TALL TALES FROM BLACKBURN TAVERN
By John Minigan. Directed by Bryn Boice. Original music and lyrics by Minigan. Through Sept. 24. Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester. Tickets $15-$67. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com