Photos by Kyle Rosenberg
It's a legend we wish were true. A Swedish princess, scorning a marriage and political alliance with the Crown Prince of Denmark, has run away with a troupe of seamstresses, laundry women and cooks to become pirates, sailing the Northern seas in search of adventure and plunder. And yet, after nearly a year aboard the Heart of Oak, things are starting to fall apart. What can we find in the loneliness of the high seas, or the sisterhood of a pirate crew, and is it worth leaving everything else behind?
Heart of Oak by Laura Hirschberg, presented by Everyday Inferno Theatre Company, is a story that reverses all the roles of the traditional pirate tale. Captain Alvida runs away from marriage but certainly not from leadership, while Prince Alfred, pining after a woman he's never met, is interested only in love. Girls carry guns and sing pirate shanties in this clever play from the FRIGID New York festival, proving that these women are far more than they appear.
The play opens on Alfred, the young prince of Denmark, and his quest to locate the Heart of Oak where his future love awaits. From there, we move to the ship itself, where Alvida teaches young Eva swordplay, reminisces about past conquests and wonders what the future of her crew will hold. Moving between the two vessels, a world starts to come together, and it soon becomes clear that the pirate life is far from idyllic.
Heart of Oak is a true ensemble show, each member of the crew part of the story of their voyage with their own motivations and struggles. When Alvida announces that they will be returning to Sweden, and that anyone who wants to go home can, loyalties start to falter and factions to form, while first mate Johanna, the only one who knows her captain's true plans, becomes caught in the middle. Before long, there are invasions and mutinies, and then the Crown Prince of Denmark shows up proposing marriage.
Throughout, we never forget where we are and why. This production does a fantastic job invoking the feeling of a pirate ship with only a few strategically placed ropes, along with costumes and casually handled weapons. The highlight of the play is its powerful use of music; rarely do more than a few minutes go by without the Heart of Oak's crew starting up a new ode to the sea and its harbors or to love and heartbreak. These songs are both beautifully performed and mysteriously enchanting, as their themes recur again and again in the play.
Leslie Gauthier does a great job with Alvida the captain/princess, a cold and often unlikeable character who is struggling with far more doubts than she will ever let her crew see. Her relationship with Johanna (Mariah Freda) is the heart of the play, subtly blurring the lines between companionate and romantic love, while Johanna, an immensely loyal character, struggles between her loyalty to her captain and to her sister Eva. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Alfred, whom Jacob Owen plays with a potent mixture of charm, cleverness and utter naivety, the most unexpected threat for this cadre of women.
The rest of the ensemble adds depth to their story, whether it's Sybill's (Sam Bruce) calm and yet hilarious wittiness or the subtle hints of class issues among this new society formed of former royal servants. While certain rivalries or arguments occasionally feel unrelated or distracting to the main story, they add to the aura of a troubled pirate crew, trying to build a new life together even as everything they once believed in falls apart. Just because these pirates are women certainly doesn't mean that they're any less impulsive, contentious, dangerous or thrilling. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
Heart of Oak is a compact little show, telling a story of national rivalries, massive sea battles and epic loves on a small stage in an hour's time. With such limitations on the production, it is the actors who shine, leaving us desperately wishing that Alvira and Alfred's story were true.