A History of Launching Ships (somewhat after Washington Irving)
nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
October 11, 2012
When visiting a naval yard, one quite often thinks of ships, battles, and blue-collared labor. It is not typically an environment that might cause one to think of women, much less the roles they’ve played throughout maritime history, with wives and daughters recast as nurses, riveters, and revolutionaries. Polybe + Seats’ A History of Launching Ships, currently showing at The Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92, takes preconceived notions about sea yarns, theatrical experience, and even one’s concept of time, and upends all.
A History of Launching Ships is a site-specific work of historical fantasy inspired by the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the gothic stories of Washington Irving, and by real-life patriot Elizabeth Burgin, who aided bluecoats in their escape from British prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay in the winter of 1779. Playwright Avi Glickstein crafts a poetic tale that anachronistically spans the period between the American Revolution and World War II, and exists at all times in between.
Here, Elizabeth finds herself with a bounty on her head, having aided in the escape of roughly 200 men from prison ships. On the run, she wanders until she lands at the front gate of an absent Naval Commandant. His wife and daughters take Elizabeth in and hide her. In fact, each woman seems to be hiding from something: the enemy, the truth, or her own potential. Together, the women confront their dreams and sacrifices, and each discovers that she can engineer her fate more than she ever thought possible.
The ensemble of Kate Reilly as Elizabeth, Sarah Sakaan and Lindsay Torrey as unlikely twins Oneida and Savannah, and Elaine O’Brien as the Commandant’s delusional wife, Sabine, is a pleasure to watch. At the helm, director Jessica Silsby Brater steers the story – and the audience – up and down four flights of stairs (bad knees, beware) while using BLDG 92 itself as a scenic backdrop.
The museum makes for an intriguing set, with its ship models, a 22,500-pound anchor lodged in the center’s atrium, and a huge photo reproduction of a ship being repaired in one of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s historic dry docks. It also allows for the rare opportunity to use archival recordings and materials in a theatrical piece.
To this landscape, scenic and prop designer Carolyn Mraz adds a womanly touch with lace curtains and tablecloths, a china tea set, and bites of refreshments offered to the audience. She is also pragmatic, arming the actors with hand-held lamps that act as beacons, calling forth and directing the audience through the hallways. And of course, there are sails and rigging; watching their deployment during the course of the piece is an absolute delight.
Karen Boyer and Bevan Dunbar do a lovely job in constructing costumes that hint at the sea, with gathered dresses hitting below the knee, stripes, net leggings, capes, laced boots, and even a fisherman’s sweater. Of particular note was Sabine’s ridiculous hat, perfectly offsetting a ruffled dressing gown the color of sea glass.
Lighting designer Marika Kent admirably rises to the task of lighting a theatrical production produced outside of a theatre, creating ambiance with faux flickering candles and using freestanding flood lights as spots. Kate Marvin layers in the element of sound with the call of wind, waves, and ambient music.
In short, A History of Launching Ships is not merely a play, but a theatrical experience. You may even want to make a day of it, if you have time (and comfortable shoes – you’ll be walking and standing, remember). Peruse BLDG 92’s exhibits and perhaps even take a bus tour of the yard before the center closes at 6pm, catch dinner nearby, and return for the 8pm curtain. You will journey home the richer for it.