Conceived by Jessica Scott; Devised by Jessica Scott with Anonymous Ensemble
Co-Directed by Jessica Scott and Eamonn Farrell
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 10.22.16
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue
by Sarah Weber on 10.22.16
Jessica Weinstein in Ship of Fools.
BOTTOM LINE: Puppetry, projections, and performance collide to explore the history of how society associates women with madness.
If you think fantastic feats of design and tech only exist on Broadway, think again. It’s incredible what off-off Broadway productions can accomplish within the limits of a small budget and a black box theater small enough to fit in a Broadway house’s lobby. Ship of Fools by Jessica Scott and Anonymous Ensemble is no small exception. This immersive piece explores society’s misconceptions of women and “madness” in ways so new and so overwhelming it makes the entire audience spin—literally.
When you enter the space, the centerpiece is a woman lounging on the stage with a single spotlight on her— my first impression was that she’s posing as if in a painting. But, after thinking on it, perhaps she’s lounging on a psychiatrist’s chaise lounge or “fainting couch” for examination. Once everyone’s seated and the show begins, another woman appears on stage in a red slip, and slowly begins to cover herself in black. We hear a woman’s voice ask the first of many questions: “Who hasn’t accused herself of being a monster? Who hasn’t thought she was sick?” Then the sound of waves and a creaking ship begin, and at first I thought that the sound effects were so good they made the the seats feel like they were rocking back and forth. It took longer than I care to admit to realize that, yes, the entire audience is on a platform that moves in circles, and we are about to be taken on a 75-minute spiraling ride as we watch history unfold.
Ship of Fools does not offer a clinical, linear lesson on the complicated relationship between society, women, and “hysteria.” Rather, it’s a series of vignettes that introduce various ideas or stories. The first shows three sirens in extra-puffy dresses and wigs resembling sea foam. They show a paper ship rolling on the waves of their wigs, which eventually sinks; then the sirens sink and disappear into their own dresses. Later in the show there are puppets on a revolving platform. On one side is an artist painting a woman, the other side is a psychiatrist analyzing a woman; the platform spins faster and faster until both scenes blend into each other. In another vignette we are introduced to 19th-century photos of female patients projected onto an ever-moving canvas; performers behind the canvas move it around the audience, folding and splitting it in various ways.
Puppetry, video, music, and poetry crash and blend into each other throughout the show. Sometimes there is so much going on that it borders on sensory overload. Certain scenes try to feature words over visuals, but because there is still so much movement around the space, words can get lost in the commotion. On the one hand, Ship of Fools is supposed to be messy; on the other hand, it’s difficult to tell how much of the mess is intentional.
Structurally, Ship of Fools may be imperfect. But it’s impossible to ignore how much this show accomplishes. It’s a like watching performance art on a Disney ride. The design team has created a captivating sound- and scene-scape that both educates and holds a mirror up to the audience. And considering the recent state of affairs in politics, Ship of Fools addresses many relevant issues. So for those looking for a unique theatre experience that gives their intellect something to chew on, this is the right show.
(Ship of Fools played at the HERE Arts Center at 145 Sixth Avenue through October 22, 2016. For more information visit here.org.)
Ship of Fools is conceived by Jessica Scott. Devised by Jessica Scott with Anonymous Ensemble. Co-Directed by Jessica Scott and Eamonn Farrell. Puppetry, Costume Design, and Set Design by Jessica Scott. Text and Projection Design by Eamonn Farrell. Original Music by Alex Klimovitsky. Lyrics by Eamonn Farrell. Lighting Design by Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa. Sound Design by Gavin Price.
The cast is Kate Brehm, Liz Davito, Jacob Graham, Takemi Kitamura, Sarah Lafferty, GeorgeAnna Tisdale, and Jessica Weinstein. Musicians are Liz Davito, Eamonn Farrell, Alex Klimovitsky, and Gavin Price.