July 23, 2014

Tall ship is a stage that’s afloat

Theater company travels on tall ship that also serves as performance space

By MARTIN DeANGELIS, Staff Writer | Posted 2 days ago

The people who created New Jersey’s official tall ship, the A.J. Meerwald, will step into an unusual role this weekend. They’re using their home port to host a theatrical performance right on the deck of a tall ship – but not their own ship.

The Meerwald’s home is Cumberland County’s Bayshore Center at Bivalve, which will welcome the Caravan Stage Company to that tiny town Saturday and Sunday to put on an original show on Caravan’s own traveling stage. And the company’s traveling stage is its own 100-foot-long ship, the Amara Zee – which was built specifically to be a floating theater. Its equipment is designed for double duty, with the theater’s curtains and scenery consciously combined with the ship’s mast and other extensive rigging.

Meghan Wren, the executive director of the Bayshore Center, says the Meerwald is away on its busy summer tour now, scheduled to leave Jersey City today for another port in its home state, in Alpine. So that leaves plenty of room for another tall ship to pull into Bivalve, in Commercial Township, and put on a show for an audience that will watch from seats on the Bayshore Center’s docks.

This play is called “Hacked: The Treasure of the Empire.” But Wren warns that even though it features pirates – the theater company describes it as “a tale of pirate activists who … battle the corrupting icons of our past and present world” – this no kiddie show.

She’s hoping for good crowds both nights, and by her early figuring, the Bayshore Center can fit roughly 300 people onto its docks. The center, which has its own restaurant, the Oyster Cracker Cafe, also is happy to sell dinner and theater packages. For an extra $20 on top of the $15 show ticket, patrons can buy dinner before the performance.

(There are two entree choices. One is “garden fresh lasagna,” and the other, naturally, features oysters – fried, with sweet-potato fries and cole slaw.)

But getting back to the show, Wren adds, “I do want to have truth in advertising. There’s some profanity, there’s some adult content, and a serious message the writer is hoping to portray. … It’s sort of a PG-13 kind of thing. But I wouldn’t want families with little kids to come just for the spectacle of seeing a play on a ship.”

Still, there is that spectacle of a show being staged right on a ship – and along with the political commentary and content, there are also circus-style aerial adventures, with help from the ship’s rigging lines. There’s also music and much more, says Pauline Fremeau, the tour director for Caravan Stage, which has home bases in Canada and Florida.

“We put some pieces of circus in the show … but I wouldn’t say it’s like Cirque du Soleil,” Fremeau said from the ship the other day, as it headed from Virginia to South Jersey.

She also stressed that this play “is more for adults. We say from 12 years old and up because it’s pretty serious. The story is about hackers fighting for their rights,” among other things. With that said, though, she added that “it’s really colorful and has a lot of lighting effects.”

As for the floating theater itself, Fremeau says it doesn’t need a special stage.

“They perform on the deck,” she said, adding that there’s also a “big platform on the mast … and they do the play on the deck and on this platform. (The ship) was built for sailing, but also to be a stage. It’s both at the same time.”

Still, she noted that although the Amara Zee is a tall ship, it does most of its traveling by river and inland waters, not in the ocean.

“The boat has a flat bottom with no keel, so the sail is not used to travel,” Fremeau says. And the Caravan Stage company notes on its website,, that the Amara Zee’s shallow keel is one of its selling points – the ship can easily travel on most rivers to reach towns where it can find audiences.

After the Caravan crew leaves Bivalve, it’s scheduled to head to Osining, N.Y., for a pair of shows. The rest of its tour this summer will take the theater ship to two stops in Ontario, one in Quebec and then a series of performances in Brooklyn in late September.

Back in Bivalve, Wren says the idea of theater on a ship may not be quite as exotic as it sounds to a non-nautical audience. She has even considered that the Meerwald could be a stage, too, and not just a floating classroom, as it often is.

“We’ve talked about … recreating (Gilbert and Sullivan’s) ‘The Pirates of Penzance,’ or Handel’s ‘Water Music.’ We have thought of her as a platform for cultural activities,” Wren said. “But these people started in theater and just thought it would be nice to do it on a boat. So we’re kind of the exact opposite.”

Wren adds that Caravan Stage Company has performed in Cumberland County before – two years in a row, actually, starting in 1999. That’s where she first saw them, and when she heard they were coming through this area again, she wanted to bring them to the Bayshore Center.

“There’s a lot of production that goes into it. They have trapeze-type support structures on shore … (and) I’m usually in awe of that side of it, because it’s so different from what we do. To me, it’s really fun to see a tall ship take shape as a theater,” Wren says.

“And I love that a group of theater people have grown to love ships, and become tall-ship sailors,” the mother of the Meerwald adds. “I love to see the way they interpret what a tall ship can be.”

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If you go

The Caravan Stage Company performs on the Amara Zee

9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, 2800 High St., Port Norris. Tickets are $15, or

$35 for the 7 p.m. dinner-theater option. For reservations or more details, call 856-785-2060 or see

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