SHE Captains: Narration vs. Images

Lightsey Darst reviews the performance by Shawn McConneloug and her Orchestra: "SHE Captains," in a Southern Theater offsite presentation. Performances run through June 25.

SHE Captains

“SHE Captains” comes alive in images. Costume, gesture, movement, props, use of the show’s atmospheric warehouse setting, all weave together in surprising, vivid moments (all design is the work of Shawn McConneloug and a long list of assistants).

To evoke the court ladies of Queen Elizabeth the First, McConneloug dresses six dancers in magenta stretch velvet dresses with stitched-on stomachers and rolls at the shoulders, worn over simple hoop farthingales—no tiresome attempt at historical authenticity, but enough to evoke the restrictive shaping of that period. McConneloug also outfits the dancers with white full-face masks, suggesting the famous queen’s famous pallor.

These identically dressed ladies-in-waiting first appear flitting, one at a time, from post to post across the vast expanse of the warehouse stage; half-flirt, half-menace, they come closer, their white masks reading as wicked smiles. Music for an Elizabethan dance begins and the ladies-in-waiting parade, make tiny, pouncing hops, and pause, flexing their spines, necks, elbows, wrists, and fingers in doll-like yet seductive articulation. It’s a fascinating vision that combines suffocating restraint with coiled, voluptuous feminine power, one that you could watch all night—if McConneloug didn’t have more fierce images at the ready.

Unfortunately, McConneloug doesn’t give the images free rein. Instead, she relies on a particularly ineffective means of presentation, especially in the beginning of the show: narration delivered by one actor (the game and energetic Kathleen “Byrd” Shuler). Talk takes the place of movement and overruns the compelling images that accompany it. Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much if the narration itself (the work of McConneloug and Nor Hall) made more sense as art or story. Despite a few good moments (an erotic description of a ship), the narration generally sounds like bad poetry: “My heart was in my throat, and it was filling with blood!” the narrator exclaims.

Meanwhile, the story or stories are hopelessly tangled. The main inspiration for “SHE Captains” is the real-life meeting of Grace O’Malley / Granya / Granuaile, an Irish “pirate queen,” with her contemporary Elizabeth I, England’s “virgin queen,” and all the issues of female models and female leadership that this suggests. But Granya’s story, told in bits and pieces, isn’t easy to follow, and finally breaks down altogether, for while in real life Elizabeth looked favorably on Granya, in “SHE Captains” the Elizabeth-figure presides over the apparent hanging of Granya—in a striking image that I would have liked not to have to reconcile with the narration. Granya’s story is also mixed in with one or two other stories, none of which come to resolution.

The narration is also littered with research. Research is a rampant fad in anything with words at the moment—although “research” might be too grand a term for the cut-and-paste jobs, with all but the web address from Wikipedia, that currently infest poetry and its relatives. So the real meeting between Granya and Elizabeth was conducted in Latin; in what way does this justify hurling conjugations at the audience? Drowning is a clear risk in the life of a pirate, but why do we need to hear (exhaustively) about the science of drowning? And, for all the research, the life of the pirate queen still feels unreal, unimagined. “I love the deception of sand and sea,” Granya is made to say at one point. Really? What about gold? cutting throats? commanding men? Where is the hard-headed, resourceful, clever character the real Granya must have been?

It’s not that the story or the research should be thrown out, just that they must be subsumed. McConneloug and her collaborators are truly inspired by this cluster of female stories and ideals, and from some of the pieces of this vast background they create the stunning images that make “SHE Captains,” ultimately, moving and enjoyable (especially in the second half of the show). After the narrator has discoursed at length on learning to be a pirate, the idea is translated into motion: two ten-year-old girls (Audrey Anderson and Maguy Rosen) shinny, quickly as monkeys, up two ropes and then spin in aerial tricks, giving the audience a vivid reminder that girls are not born timid or weak.

For her Queen Elizabeth, McConneloug garbs a man (Noah Bremer) in full Elizabethan dress and frightening white face-paint; the queen who exploited virgin myths and set an impossible standard for any female leaders after her becomes a female impersonator, gliding across the stage as if she were not even human. When she/he hangs the free-spirited, unconventional Granya-narrator, then, we see one mode of womanhood condemning another; too bad the story gets in the way of this chilling scene.

The subject of women’s roles is fraught with cliché, unfortunately, and “SHE Captains” doesn’t entirely escape this risk. When, towards the end, four women appear on squares of sod, you can tell by the green of the grass that no one’s going to be hanged in this scene. Instead, it’s time for reclamation. The four women wear pirate gear and one high-heeled shoe each; the one shoe gives them a funny, peg-legged walk, thus showing that the modern woman can use her high heels (i.e., the trappings of conventional femininity) as aids in her modern buccaneering. The women eat apples, thus showing that they’ve accepted their kinship with Eve, that bad apple, but they eat without using their hands, thus maintaining their girlish playfulness. Generally, I like the symbolic water to be a little muddier than this. But it’s so much fun to watch these women gymnastically eat their apples—apples rolling on the sod, on the women’s shoulders and laps, bitten apples flying through the air—that the clichés feel reanimated.

“SHE Captains” is an ambitious project full of material, talent, and ideas. McConneloug hasn’t found the best way to weave all this together yet, but she takes to it in true piratical fashion, with style, energy, and daring. In this she’s matched by her crew of assistants and her cast. Anna Shogren puts a smoky slink in her pirate strut, Roxane Wallace packs heat in her pirate stroll, and Amanda Furches, Megan Mayer, Jane Shockley, and the others previously mentioned give generous, full-bodied performances. Susan Scalf’s dark brilliance especially catches the eye; she fills each movement with the knowing pleasure of the adult and powerful woman.