nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
What I like best about Shirtwaist, the new "musical ghost story"
by Ellen Anderson, is the way it keeps taking off in unexpected
directions. It begins with a firefighter lecturing a group of unseen
small children about fire safety, and she’s a youthful Asian American
woman (named Kelly, because she was born on St. Patrick’s Day): how cool
is that? Anderson introduces us to her protagonist in the next scene, a
Brazilian immigrant named Arturo who is a botany professor at New York
University; his office is on the ninth floor of the Brown Building (this
next part is true), which once was called the Asch Building and is the
site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
August 15, 2003
Now some history: in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire. In just twenty minutes, 146 people perished, many of them burned to death because they couldn’t get out (management had locked the doors), others killed after jumping from the sweatshop’s ninth-story windows. Nearly a hundred years later, 141 of the victims have been identified; it’s Anderson’s marvelous conceit that the remaining five remain in the building as ghosts, reminding people every day of the terrible cost of that awful fire.
Anderson of course gives her ghosts names and personalities, and again they’re a wonderfully diverse lot: Jewish Dora, who is the group’s surrogate mother; sassy Jamaican immigrant Beth; Tony, a music-loving Italian immigrant; fifteen-year-old Angelina (most of those killed at the Triangle were women under 22); and Sophie, a union organizer who, unlike the others, has forgotten all about her life before the fire. But Sophie feels an odd affinity for Arturo; how Shirtwaist links her destiny to his, entangling Kelly the Firefighter in the process, fills out the play’s rich, supernatural plot.
Along the way, Anderson takes time to talk about issues like the environment, bigotry, and—most significantly—the ways that greed and indifference have kept the lessons of the Triangle Fire from enduring. Shirtwaist has a gigantic social conscience, but it wears it jauntily on its sleeve, using puppets, songs, and other devices to make its points. The result is 90 minutes of engaging and provocative theatre that reminds us of our too-easily-forgotten responsibilities as human beings sharing this planet.
Shirtwaist is directed with charm by Heather Ondersma. The simple yet effective sets and lighting are by Scott Boyd; appropriate costumes are by Julie Sandy; and the exquisitely effective puppets are designed by Stefano Brancato. The actors, whose commitment to the piece is evident, are Hanna Moon (Kelly), Javier Cobo (Arturo), Wendi Bergamini (Sophie), Berette Macauley (Beth), Janet Casamento (Angelina), Mark Pergola (Tony), and Michaela Goldhaber (Dora).