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'Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project,' with Puppets

A theatrical exploration of the great female pirates of history through song and shadow puppetry

Photos by Jonathan Musser

There are many things that are better when taking place on boats, especially in the beautiful New York springtime, and theater about pirates is certainly one of them. Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project by Drama of Works is a devised immersive shadow puppetry piece that examines the history of female pirates – performed on a boat in the Red Hook Channel. And that's only the beginning.

This ensemble piece consists of five chapters, each telling the tale of one of the great women pirates. How many could there be, you may ask? There is Jeanne de Clisson, a widowed noblewoman of Brittany who sold her estate to buy three warships and kill all the French noblemen she could find; Grace O'Malley, an Irish trader and pillager from the 15th century; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, two young women raised in disguise as boys who by chance ended up sailing as pirates on the same ship; Ching Shih, a Cantonese prostitute who married and then took over the fleet of a notorious pirate; and Sadie Farrell, a New York City river pirate from 1869. And those are only the ones who could fit into the play.

The piece is performed by a ensemble of five performers, three women who alternate the lead roles of each tale and two supporting men. These pirates are puppeteers first, immersing the audience in a sophisticated shadow world with images projected on three walls, moving easily from screen to screen and in and out of the live action scenes. This crafty performance features such innovations as flashlight cannon fire, scenes taking place on a clothesline strung across the middle of the stage and the regular interaction between woman-held weapons and shadowy foes.

Music also infuses every moment of the play, plunging us into the timeless world of pirates as well as the historical particulars of each character with entrancing sea shanties. Emily Hartford, Gretchen Van Lente and Meghan Maureen Williams are powerful and engaging when playing the lead character in each scene, though they and supporting actors Joseph Garner and Scott Weber too often fade into the background when it is not their story being told. This lack of ensemble energy, perhaps due to the concentrated precision necessary for the intricate shadow work, keeps the performance from living up to its highest potential and maintains a storytelling rather than an interactive theatrical mode of performance.

One of the strengths of Blood Red Roses is that the five stories told, though beginning with the same premise, are all so different, from the girls who are imprisoned young to the successful women who retire comfortably from the pirate lifestyle. Although not enough is done to distinguish these stories tonally from one another, audiences do get to experience both tragedy and triumph, love and heartbreak in quick succession. Perhaps the most exciting and enjoyable chapter is that of the two young crossdresser pirates, both for its opportunity to have two fully developed human actors interact with one another and for its rapid succession of passionate love and dark misfortune—though ending the performance with a local New York tale was certainly appreciated.

You may get antsy waiting for the sun to go down, but that's the only place for Drama of Works to work their magic. A rousing evening of catchy tunes, spellbinding shadow work and more historical learning than you might anticipate, Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project is an experience worth seeing for all the pirate lovers amongst us. You will certainly leave the ship singing their songs.

Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project plays through May 31 at the Waterfront Museum in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

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