The historic Brooklyn Navy Yard hasn’t seen any shipbuilding for decades. By the later decades of the 20th century it had become for most of the public an inaccessible, even mysterious relic. But this large site on the Brooklyn waterfront has been experiencing a renaissance of use and interest, both commercial and cultural, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation has turned BLDG 92 into an exhibition space and visitors’ center.
This fall the multi-story space is providing a home for a new, historically inspired story that references many aspects of the long history of the Navy Yard area. As a play, On the Launching of Ships is a mixed bag – some scenes succeed much better than others. As an experience, in which the audience follows the cast up and down through the building to follow the fantastical story, it’s a worthwhile experience. It’s also a winner as an excuse to visit a remarkable new facility at a historic site.
The show takes as a starting point Elizabeth Burgin, a Revolutionary War personage who helped rescue some 200 American soldiers from the terrible prison ships the British operated in Wallabout Bay, a bend in the East River near the grounds that soon thereafter became the Navy Yard. The British put a two hundred pound price on her head but she escaped capture. Little else is known about Burgin, a convenient fact for playwright Avi Glickstein and the oddly named Polybe + Seats troupe, who have concocted from this seedling legend a dream-like tale incorporating legend, song, poetry, even newspaper articles from Revolutionary times through World War II, while also, per a subtitle, taking inspiration from Washington Irving’s writings.
In the play, the fleeing Burgin (a marvelous Kate Reilly) turns up near Philadelphia at the home of twin sisters Oneida (Sara Sakaan) and Savannah (Lindsay Torrey) and their mother Sabine (Elaine O’Brien). The imaginative, distinctly weird daughters have kept from their mother the news of the family patriarch’s death at sea in the war, and while Sabine pines for her husband’s impossible return, the girls busy themselves building model ships. When Elizabeth arrives and in a psychopathic/magical delusion Sabine takes her for her lost husband, the girls raise their shipbuilding game. After several more magical-realist adventures, climbing up and down several flights of stairs, winding through exhibits and across a nerve-wracking metal bridge, and even eating a piece of delicious cake, we’re brought back to the entrance hall where we started, standing around the gargantuan anchor of the USS Austin (built at the Navy Yard), trying to make sense of what we’ve just seen.
But the play is not a straightforward tale but a phantasmagoria, albeit if very well played by the strong cast of four. The unorthodox presentation has its advantages and disadvantages. Having to look way up to see the cast in certain scenes is a strain, and a climactic scene where we’re looking down on them doesn’t pay off because it’s hard to make out the dialogue in the echoey space or understand the relevance of a suddenly appearing disembodied voice, and downright impossible to understand Savannah’s grand final speech because of an over-loud sound effect. (Other than that, the cleverly portable sound design works nicely.) On the other hand, a scene where Oneida sings a song honoring the many trades that contribute to shipbuilding is charmingly effective, as is a scene on the top floor where, overlooking a nighttime view of the Navy Yard, the women wrestle with some impossible reproductive news.
This is nowhere near the parts of town theatergoers are accustomed to. If you go, allow plenty of time for a 20-minute walk from the subway or for following the subway-to-bus directions on the BLDG 92 website. Tickets at Smarttix, and more information at the Polybe + Seats website. A History of Launching Ships runs through Oct. 28.
Photos by Stephen Yang