by Mary Notari · May 28, 2015
At the very end of Conover Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn on a jetty jutting out into the New York Harbor, bobbing in the wake of ferries and container ships, is the refurbished Lehigh Valley Barge #79, the only remaining floating barge of its era and home of The Waterfront Museum. Onboard through this weekend are special guests, multidisciplinary theater company Drama of Works, and their new musical shadow play, Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project. The captain is welcoming, the views are spectacular, and the show is good fun. It's a rare opportunity to see theater perfectly suited to its performance venue in a fairly obscure corner of New York City.
The play is an original work based on real histories of female pirates throughout history. Using imaginative shadow puppetry and songs adapted from actual sea shanties, the production attempts to answer the question: “Why choose to be a pirate?” and, according to the liner notes, to illuminate "the times, the culture and the role of women in the history of life at sea."
Five different stories of women pirates answer this question in five different acts: Revenge, Honor, Survival/Escape, Power, and Adventure. It's a bit romanticized, but all in good fun. A common theme is women who have been subjects of injustice in a male-dominated world cutting connections to their lives on land and taking power back as outlaws on the sea. But the show does well to complicate that notion, especially with the stories of Sadie Farrell, a river pirate/gangster in 1860's New York, and Ching Shih from Guangzhou, arguably the most powerful pirate of any gender ever. In the end, the show is a bit dark, a bit silly, and delightfully novel in its presentation.
The puppeteers come up with some unexpected methods of conveying so much with so little. The cut outs of ships are all especially impressive and the ensemble uses the space well to make sure that the action is played to all corners of the audience. Flags, dresses, and parasols are some of the things used for projection in addition to three large scrims that surround the audience in attempt to make the experience immersive. It certainly works when the rocking of the barge against the dock becomes perceptible and the sound of the waves waft in through the wooden wall panels.
Refreshingly, the troupe is less concerned with creating literal representations of the events of the stories but more with piecing together visual impressions for the audience to put together themselves. Songs are used as exposition, actors and cutouts trade roles as characters, and overall there is a feeling that this could have been a show put on by a traveling troupe on a real ship back in the day.
Blood Red Roses is a treat of a show and an inspiring use of puppetry in a truly unique space. Get there early to enjoy the sunset, see the barge, and have a drink, and then let yourself be transported.