Pretending to be Frenchmen in love is not what U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen are best known for -- but it is as much an academy tradition as battleships and war.
To mark the military college's 150th birthday, students are staging "The Lady of Lyons," a love story set in post-revolutionary France originally performed by members of the first academy class in 1845.
"We're honoring the memory of those midshipmen," senior Mark Lukken said. "This play is a part of our history."
Midshipmen will perform a matinee at 3 p.m. Nov. 5 in the 'D Presbyterian Church on Duke of Gloucester Street. Shows also are scheduled at the academy at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Nov. 7 and 10.
Midshipmen will get on stage and declare, "I can't lose you. My heart will break" and "Oh, how I loved this man!" But unlike in 1845, women will play the female roles. In the original production, midshipmen donned dresses for the parts.
The play, with its courting and cleavage, could not have less to do with the academy. It is a peasant-boy-disguised-as-prince-to-get- girl story.
But Anne Marie Drew, the director, said the play serves as valuable a role in the midshipmen's education as courses in weaponry and seamanship do.
"At this place sometimes they have a hard time sorting out the part of them that's military and the part that is their heart," said Ms. Drew, a civilian who describes herself as a product of the 1960s. "This is a way to resolve that tension."
For junior Jennifer Poff, the play offers a chance to feel like an individual again.
"You go through a whole day of wearing a uniform, marching in formation and going to classes . . . then you come here and you can kick back and be yourself," said Ms. Poff, who goes from studying the History of Total War to dressing up in lace gloves and bustle skirts.
The real act, some said, comes when rehearsals are over.
"It's a big game," said A. J. Clarendon, a sophomore. "The uniform's a big front. This whole place is like a military fraternity. And it consumes your life."
Added junior Joseph Brunson: "That's why we do this play -- to escape."
The performances are sure to be much less rambunctious than in 1845. The first acting troupe drank so much backstage that audience members could hear champagne corks popping during the performances. One midshipman from that class, Ed Simpson, credited the cast's "heathenish rites" with the founding of the Presbyterian Church on the grounds that same year.
The acting troupe, known as the Masqueraders, is as old as the academy itself, yet theater is a tradition the academy seems to embrace only quietly. The Masqueraders are not mentioned with other extracurricular activities in the course catalog, and theater and other arts classes are not offered during the semester.
Senior Timothy Kinsella says the play helps undo stereotypes about midshipmen.
"Midshipmen, people think, are closed-minded, very militaristic," he said. "This is outside the realm of Bancroft Hall, so you get to see people not as midshipmen -- you see they are no different than any other college kid."