Captain Ferguson's School for Balloon Warfare
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
August 24, 2011
David Nelson delivers a compelling performance in Isaac Rathbone’s enjoyable play Captain Ferguson’s School for Balloon Warfare, directed by Philip Emeott.
The time is 1916, the place is Fort Omaha, Nebraska. Captain Thomas Ferguson is commissioned by the United States Army to head the first ever Balloon Warfare school, and to turn a motley assortment of men into first-class balloonists. Not only that, Captain Ferguson also believes that he can turn these hydrogen-filled balloons with wicker baskets into world-class killing machines, the likes of which the Germans wouldn’t be able to go up against. He just needs the OK from his superiors, all of whom are dubious that this tactic—and that Ferguson’s hubris—can actually help win the War.
It is based on the life of World War I balloon aviator Captain Charles deForest Chandler, whose hopes to use a fleet of hydrogen-filled canvas balloons in battle were dashed when Wilbur and Orville Wright introduced the powered biplane. Chandler became Chief of the Balloon Section of the Air Service in France, though the balloons were eventually retired, their funding given to airplane development.
The success of the piece, which comes in at just under an hour, hinges on the man playing Captain Ferguson, and Nelson, with an expressive face that conveys multiple feelings at once, is particularly vivid. We’re turned into his students, listening to the Captain’s first lectures. We may be called upon to answer questions, or to provide directions in semaphore. Swiftly staged by Emeott on an attractive and versatile unit set reminiscent of a large canvas balloon (designed by Bradleyville Creative Industries), Nelson makes the very minimal audience participation as unassuming and comfortable as possible, though if you don’t want to be noticed, sit towards the back.
Most importantly, it never feels too long, thanks to Emeott's clipped pace, Rathbone’s short scenes, and Nelson’s highly watchable and nuanced performance. Only the ending, the result of Ferguson’s flying too close to the sun, doesn’t quite work. Its downbeat and potentially emotionally manipulative nature doesn’t mesh with the rest of the piece. Still, it’s possible to forgive, as I, for one, found myself on the edge of the seat.