The Seven Deadly Seas: At Rope’s End
Cabaret Red Light cruises into town aboard its seafaring theater
Published: June 15, 2011
Cabaret Red Light performs The Seven Deadly Seas: At Rope’s End
June 16-19 at South Broadway and Thames streets in Fells Point.
For more information visit cabaretredlight.com/sevenseas.
The tall ship Gazela, built in 1901, spent most of her early years carrying Portuguese fishermen back and forth to Newfoundland. Every spring she left Lisbon with a crew of 40 men and 90 tons of salt, and every fall she returned home with a hold full of preserved cod and other finned eats. Gazela retired from fishing in 1969; today, she is the oldest wooden square-rigger in America still sailing the high seas. And while her cargo is no longer edible, it remains decidedly salty. This weekend, Gazela docks in Baltimore with Philadelphia agitprop troupe Cabaret Red Light on board. The 30-plus-member company performs a live gypsy jazz, burlesque, and pirate theater spectacular entitled The Seven Deadly Seas: At Rope’s End. Featuring murder, mayhem, and no doubt some sly commentary on the financial crisis, the show tells the “somewhat true story” of the Pirates of Ponzi: Calico Jack, Mary Read, and Anne Bonny.
Cabaret Red Light has been performing since 2008, and on Gazela since last summer. The ship typically travels along the East Coast, docking for weekend performances as well as day-time tours, conducted by an all-volunteer crew. And in the evenings, under boat work lights and the harbor stars, the pirates come out.
City Paper caught up with co-directors Peter Gaffney and Anna Frangiosa (aka burlesque artist “Annie A-Bomb”) separately, by phone. Gaffney—who sings, plays accordion and guitar in company band the Blazing Cherries, and co-writes and emcees the show—spoke to us from solid ground. Frangiosa—who makes all the costumes, co-writes, and wrangles the dancers—was onboard Gazela, docked in Newport, R.I. She is traveling with the ship for the entire run of The Seven Deadly Seas, and the conversation was necessarily brief: “I’m the cook, and the crew is hovering around the galley looking for their food.”
City Paper: Is the whole troupe on board?
Anna Frangiosa: I’m actually the only one from Cabaret Red Light who’s sailing the whole trip . . . I hadn’t really had a lot of boating experience, and neither had some of the other guys in the show, but there’s an intense watch schedule and sleep deprivation and sea sickness and danger and, I don’t know, it’s just a little crazy out on the ocean. It’s kind of like being on the moon, and I think it wasn’t for everyone.
CP: Did you draw from the ship’s history in creating the show?
AF: You know, pirates were a hell of a lot earlier than Gazela was built. People come on board, and it’s kind of irritating because they’re like, “It’s a pirate ship! It’s a pirate ship!” and we’re like, “Actually, no, it’s a Portuguese cod fisher that’s about a hundred years old and pirates are from the 1700s.” And they’re like, “Whatever, it’s a pirate ship! It’s a pirate ship!” So it’s mostly just the closest thing that we have to a pirate ship in Philly. I guess the boat history is more something we do during the day.
CP: Would you describe what you do as a variety show?
AF: It kind of started out that way, and there may be more shows that end up that way, but what our next season is looking toward is more like what a theater company does. We get shit because we don’t do things in a traditional way. People in the legitimate theater world, half of them totally respect what we’re doing and half of them think what we’re doing is just amateurish or something. But the truth is whether we’re selling tickets because people take their clothes off or because we’re talented or interesting to watch or have a cool message and ideas, whatever it is, we’re selling a lot of tickets. So they have to pay attention eventually. And we don’t really care as long as people like us.
Peter Gaffney: Our shtick has always been that we’re like a cabaret in hell. You know, my character is the emcee, but my back story is that I’m the lawyer for the devil. And in our first series, The Seven Deadly Sins [a series of performance based on each sin], we’d always have local guest talent play the role of the devil, and then I would be kind of his henchman, helping him along. We always thought of it like The Muppet Show, because we had this guest who we threw onto the stage that we’d make perform, and so we always had these stock characters guiding the devil through the show.
CP: Does putting on a show in such an unusual venue present any challenges?
PG: One of the major hurdles we had to cross was that we work in ports where . . . we typically are not allowed to have any amplified sound. It’s fun. Putting on these shows has been one of the most rewarding things because it does feel like we’re using the exact same tools that anyone would have had available for centuries. We just have a little tiny stage right in the middle of the [deck], so everybody’s real close to the stage. We’re talking directly to the audience. Did you ever see Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the movie version? You know the caravan where the walls fall down and they put the torches out and suddenly they’ve got a stage? Well, that’s the way it feels.
CP: I read that you are a professor. How did you come to be part of a burlesque troupe?
PG: I was performing with just the band element about three or four years ago. It was a string quartet, and we were playing adaptations of gypsy standards. And Anna Frangiosa, I didn’t really know her then, but she was also performing at this one variety show at L ‘Etage in Philadelphia, and she approached me afterward and said, “Hey, do you want to write a socialist musical?” We also started dating around then, so it was kind of a do-you-wanna-swap-phone-numbers line.
CP: Could you maybe describe one scene or element from the show, just to give us a taste of your style?
PG: There’s some funny recurring elements where these characters people will be familiar with, mostly from Disney movies, appear and are dispatched within seconds. I mean there’s a few appearances by—I don’t want to say quite who because it would ruin it. But the pirates do away with any of these kinds of intrusive elements from the world of Disney as quickly as they appear on the boat.
CP: Anything else you’d like to share with the landlubbers of Baltimore?
PG: We were down there, Cubby [Altobelli, who plays Calico Jack] and I, last weekend, and we met a lot of the landlubbers. He was parading around in stocks, you know the old manacles, and it was surprising how many people wanted us to put them in the stocks. I think this typically bodes well for a show, if your audience already wants to be detained and locked up.
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