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What do you do with a drunken sailor?
If you’re Sadie “The Goat” Farrell – one of the six women whose stranger-than-fiction life story is told by Blood Red Roses, an “immersive” shadow-puppet-based piece at Red Hook’s Waterfront Museums – you knock his head in a few times, give him a good scaring, and then set him to operating your recently crime syndicate.
Not bad, Blood Red Roses suggests, for a woman.
But what it means to be a woman in a man’s profession – and a criminal man’s at that – is often left unexplored in Blood Red Roses, whose vignettes, despite their flashy titles (ADVENTURE! ESCAPE! HONOR) tend to run together into a single informative, entertaining, but thematically mellow experience.
It’s a shame, because the premise of Blood-Red Roses is so rich. How do women maintain their authority aboard a ship of men unaccustomed to taking orders from the would-be fairer sex – other than, in the evening’s strongest segment, on Mary Reid and Anne Bonney, donning male attire? How does the threat of sexual violence – only ever played for laugh – shape the shipboard experience? What makes a pirate – of either gender – tick?
The Drama of Works Ensemble tells the story of its female buccaneers through a curious mix of nautical folk music – each song’s lyrics altered to move the plot along – shadow puppetry, and the odd bit of actual acting, an approach that’s often visually striking. All members of the show’s ensemble (Joseph Garner, Emily Hartford, Gretchen Van Lente, Scott Weber and Meghan Williams) are fantastically talented puppeteers, and Blood Red Roses is at its best when the gang is creating French armies or New York bar-brawls, epic scenes that use the interplay of light and shadow to capture something of the grandeur of the high seas (that the screens all resemble sails is likewise a nice touch). In the puppeted sequences, the ensemble takes a decidedly comic turn, and the gleeful ridiculousness with which murder and mayhem is presented for your historical edification – think the best school field trip you’ve ever had – makes each character memorable. The setting – a historic boat docked in Red Hook’s harbour – provides a richly atmospheric backdrop, even if the wait for sundown (the show’s start time is linked to the movement of the skies) proves a tedious reminder that not everything can be staged.
Yet Blood Red Roses works less well as an immersive piece of theatre (indeed, it’s one of too many sold-as-“immersive” productions that aren’t, strictly speaking, immersive at all) than it does as a strictly educational one. It presents all its stories entertainingly (although goes on a trifle too long), but rarely goes beyond the surface: characters are presented, and we learn admittedly scintillating facts about each, but they’re gone before we can learn what makes them who they are as people, and not just shadows on a wall. This is particularly frustrating in the case of the night’s most enigmatic heroines: Mary Reid and Anne Bonney. A jaunty and hummable musical number hints at friendship – or maybe more? – between the pair: a confusion of gender and social roles and identity that is ripe for dramatic excavation. But Blood Red Roses sails instead on the surface of characters’ stories. It leaves us, like the women who have set sail, wanting more.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.