Captain Ferguson’s School for Balloon Warfare at 59E59 Theaters is full of hot air. Deliberately. Playwright Isaac Rathbone has chanced upon a historical curiosity—one man’s passion for the military application of hydrogen balloons in World War I—and fashioned it into blithe tragedy.
Somehow or other, Rathbone discovered the biography of Captain Charles deForest Chandler, the first man to ever fire a machine gun from an aircraft and the U.S.’s chief of the Balloon Division from 1917 to 1918. Chandler survived the war intact, commanding a balloon post as late as 1920, and balloons persist as a martial tool.
But that’s apparently too cheerful a story for Rathbone, who devises a gloomier end for his hero and treats soldierly ballooning as a quixotic failure. He refashions Chandler as Captain Thomas Morton Ferguson, played by David Nelson, a skinny actor with a moustache so lush it threatens to upset his balance.
Under Philip Emeot’s direction, Ferguson proposes to treat the audience as recruits at Omaha’s Army Balloon School circa 1916. He tells this eager corps (many of whom look too old, fat, sleepy, or female to pass muster) that we will soon join in “the greatest military invention since gunpowder: large hydrogen-balloons manned by soldiers hanging from wicker baskets.” These rickety and inefficient aircraft each took more than 100 men to equip and pilot. How those Germans must have quaked in their marching boots.
Nelson and Rathbone are at their best in these speeches designed to rally the troops, and somewhat less effective in short scenes in which Ferguson is questioned by a trio of shadowy generals seen as projections. When the generals finally approve the use of balloons for surveillance (they’re not as keen on Ferguson’s plans to weaponize them), the play heads to the fields of France, where morale dips as casualties climb.
Throughout the somewhat overwritten script, Ferguson, who has a talent for self-aggrandizement, compares himself to Sisyphus, Prometheus, and Pandora. But Rathbone has a different Greek analogue in mind: Icarus. Hydrogen balloons only achieved altitudes of 500 feet. But for Ferguson, as Rathbone has it, that was far too close to the sun.