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Superheroines Historical and Fantastical Power Two Memorable Women's Theatre Festival Shows 

Katy Werlin in Decision Height

Photo courtesy of the Women's Theatre Festival

Katy Werlin in Decision Height

There's no shortage of popular entertainment about military basic training—at least for men. Plays on the topic include Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues and Black Angels Over Tuskeegee; an even broader range of films extends from Abbott and Costello's Buck Privates to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.

For women? Two comedies on screen: Private Benjamin and Jessica Simpson's execrable Private Valentine—but you can add Demi Moore's G.I. Jane if you consider Navy SEAL training a fair equivalent. On stage, nothing but obscurities. (Don't count Dames at Sea. A single Broadway cattle call does not ten weeks of boot camp make.)

We anticipated hearing little-known stories in the Women's Theatre Festival, and Meredith Dayna Levy's drama, DECISION HEIGHT, does not disappoint. Her fictionalized account of six women attempting to join the WASPs—Women's Airforce Service Pilots—in 1943 is unfamiliar for a good reason: The government shuttered the controversial program in 1944 and kept all of its records sealed until 1977.

Levy makes the cultural context of these brave women's time clear from the outset. In her first letter to her fiancé, William, narrator Virginia (Katy Werlin) relates having to leave home under a pretext because her father would never consent: "After all," she reminds William, "he had nearly pulled me out of University when he learned I was earning my student [pilot] license."

The others in the sextet are pursuing—or fleeing—different things. At one point, their well-seasoned flight instructor, Ziggie (a keen Laura Griffin) probes their reasons for flying in a series of lyrical questions: "Are you attempting to escape a small life? Do you fly to see what's beyond the horizon? Do you fly because you feel heavy? Are you seeking another kind of baptism?"

Though the text doesn't entirely escape long-established tropes from the more familiar male accounts, the cultural differences of a ragtag group of misfits are conspicuously narrowed here. It's been documented that in the 1940s, few minority women had pilot's licenses, one of the minimum requirements for the program.

The primary differences involve class, marital status, and religion. Eddie (Tara Williams), the rough-hewn daughter of a famous aviatrix, scandalizes the straitlaced Norma Jean (Libby Rounds) with her cursing and her atheism. Carol (Kimmy Fiorentino) is mildly hazed for her small stature, and smart-as-a-whip Alice (Kelly McDaniel) is the company's envy—until she's temporarily stigmatized when they learn she's left a child back home.

After predictable initial squabbles, the group makes a pact to keep the peace with one another. But the high-minded and unspecific terms of the contract seem a bit overwritten for these concrete surroundings. Still, the bonds formed through shared dangers, delights, and endless military details ring true. Director Emily Rose White finds the heart of the group, and sends it—and us—aloft.

Katy Koop isn't afraid to shake things up. Drusilla Is Dead, her regional premiere as a playwright in June, traced the psychosexual madness of Albert Camus's Caligula back to a sinister childhood nursery. Koop's new one-act features two self-styled vigilantes—with their own theme song, no less—who avenge the city's sexual assaults through ultraviolence. But after the audience snickered through the lyrics in the droll opening moments of THE AMAZING CUNT & LIL' BITCH TAKE RALEIGH last Saturday, one member of this crime-fighting duo explored her increasing misgivings about its brand of justice. As she did, Koop's script unexpectedly veered from dark comedy to darker psychological drama.

Or at least that's how it was all supposed to go. But when a crucial plot point got scrambled in an early scene, those tables turned well before the playwright wished, and more than she intended.

The same two actors, Nicole Benjamin and Molly Riddick, play the title characters throughout the work. But confusion erupted after Koop and her sister, Sarah, ineptly codirected Evelyn Gualdron and Kyle Bullins, who play all of the supporting roles, through an unreadable first character change. The couple who'd just set the scene by telling us they never used to feel safe in their city were suddenly, inexplicably being tortured by sadists. We awaited their superhero saviors—until it gradually dawned on us that they were the ones inflicting the damage.

Several scenes later, a single line defined Gualdron and Bullins's second characters as sexual predators meeting their comeuppance. It's too little information, delivered far too late to support the scene and clue the audience into what was taking place.

The production recovers from that authorial and directorial gaffe. After her rambling first monologue, Lil' Bitch makes increasingly incisive discoveries as she probes her own psychotic psyche, questioning her unquenchable thirst for revenge. "I've never been happier and I'm scared shitless," she confesses at one point. "I'm so happy, I'm not even me anymore." Benjamin courageously stepped in during the last week of rehearsals to replace Kaley Morrison as The Amazing Cunt, the remorseless senior partner of the squad.

The claustrophobic venue, a converted storage room in The Green Monkey, doesn't give the actors adequate space to negotiate the script's physicality. It does, however, convey some of the intimacy between two wounded women brought together by violence that then slowly tears them apart. When sexual assault is a pandemic in America, Koop raises uncomfortable questions about what true justice might actually look like to its survivors. While her writing needs more seasoning, the thought-provoking work on display here cannot be ignored.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Injustice League"

  • Decision Height and The Amazing Cunt & Lil' Bitch Take Raleigh both close this weekend.

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