In a series of discrete segments, Blood Red Roses tells the story of six female pirates throughout history. We hear about Grace O’Malley’s impressive negotiations with Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Bonney and Mary Read’s ultimately futile attempts at masquerading as men on their respective ships, and Sadie “The Goat” Farrell’s tales as an East River pirate. From Jeanne de Clisson’s murderous quest for revenge on the medieval English Channel to Ching Shih’s fight for power in nineteenth-century China, these stories comprise a vast and varied look at the various women who took control of the historically male-dominated sea.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of this devised piece is the venue itself. Boarding the Lehigh Valley Barge off the docks of Red Hook, Brooklyn, is like taking a literal step off the land and a figurative step back in time. During normal business hours, the old barge is a museum dedicated to New York City’s rich maritime history. During the run of this production, however, the rickety, wooden fixture serves as the galley of a ghost ship. At the performance under review, thunder crackled in the distance and the makeshift stage bobbed in the Upper Bay’s stormy waters while the players carry on in costume designer Emily Blumenauer’s grungy, Victorian seafarer wear; if nothing else, Blood Red Roses is a chillingly atmospheric evening of theater.
With regard to content, the ensemble of creators and performers—Joseph Garner, Emily Hartford, Gretchen Van Lente, Scott Weber, and Meghan Maureen Williams—has elected to dramatize their script using various cut-out shadow puppets. In the age of impressive displays of puppetry from The Lion King to War Horse to even the newly opened Hand to God, the cut-out and flashlight technique is not as captivating as it once might have been. However, their storytelling methods are certainly interesting and largely successful: director Van Lente does well to use the space’s side walls as well as various different curtains as canvases for the company’s puppetry.
Integral to their series of tales are the traditional sea shanties they utilize as plot development and framing devices. The actors weave in and out of song seamlessly as the performance unfolds. Familiar tunes such as “Rolling Sea” and the title song “Blood Red Roses” are present in music director Amy Carrigan’s well-curated set list as well as the, perhaps, most famous pirate song “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?”. Maritime folksong purists as well as generally savvy listeners will likely notice some rather conspicuously altered lyrics and mis-accented words; on the whole, however, the musical devices serve the production well.
The aforementioned, fabled archetypal works of pirate fiction are rightfully regarded as classics, but Blood Red Roses is a reminder that pirates are not all peg-legs and eye patches. Likewise, it tells us that there are some “Jane” seafarers among the “Jacks” we know and love. The Drama of Works company has assembled an entertaining, engaging evening of song and story sure to amuse the feminist pirate lover in all of us.
Blood Red Roses (through May 31, 2015)
Drama of Works Production
The Waterfront Museum/Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79
290 Conover Street, Red Hook, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.dramaofworks.com