“One night, I was watching the news. For what seems like the millionth time since November 2016, I was so angry, and I screamed, “I’m going to go to the White House and set myself on fire…” Playwright Chris Henry
On the heels of Gloria: A Life (Gloria Steinem), Bella Bella (Bella Abzug), What the Constitution Means to Me, and anything by Eve Ensler, comes Women On Fire, voices of real women facing lack of civil rights, misogyny, objectification, and abuse leveled towards the distaff side of this country (the world). At the eye of the storm is a take-no-prisoners attack on our despicable government, ignoring humanitarianism, twisting law, placing generations in danger.
We open and close with percussion-driven, tribal dance influenced by Alvin Ailey. Emily Anne Davis, Mariah Reives, Samantha Butts, and Erica Misilo lunge, coil, fold, strike, merge, and spin out on their own axes. Extending limbs are all equal. Lorna Ventura’s terrific choreography gives form and movement to emotion. Dancers additionally bridge each oration and physically comment/silently illustrate intermittent speeches.
“To quote Hamlet, there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. Don’t we wish we were there?!” begins the inestimable Kathleen Chalfant. Erupting into a litany of disastrous events brought about by Mr. Trump and his enablers since commandeering the high office he brings so low, Chalfant inhabits fury like Greek Tragedy. (Perhaps the goddess Lyssa who inhabited mad rage.) “Do you think the people who wrote the Constitution would believe someone stole it with the help of the Russians?! We are paralyzed by a racist, fascist ruling party!”
Stephanie Block rails that she feels like she’s playing Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in which sexually servile women are the property of the state. “I know this must seem very strange, but ordinary is what you’re used to…,” she quotes an ostensibly reassuring matron from the book. “…under Regan, the AIDS crisis slogan was Silence=Death. What’s ours, Pussy’s Grab Back?! I hate it! It doesn’t even make sense!…If you…I’ll cut off your fucking hand!” The actress is cranked up and naturalistic.
“My 12 year-old niece was caught in the bathroom giving blow jobs to boys in order to be liked,” a formidable woman snaps, citing the musical Pretty Woman as the wrong kind of message. “There are more visitors to porn sites than to Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined!” From someone else, “If we believe our current president is a sexual predator, what about Bill Clinton?! We can’t change the rules depending on the team.” The script doesn’t qualify or explain individual opinions.
Finished before Harvey Weinstein came to court, there are nonetheless parentheses on Bill Cosby, the disillusionment of losing one’s television father, Louis CK, who never apologized, and Roman Polanski, whose recent international film festival awards were vociferously protested. “If one more person tells me we have to judge artists only on their work I’m gonna combust!” (There’s a topic for conversation.)
We also hear conservative opinions shaped by culture/background. Charming and completely credible, Maddie Corman’s Barbie-like Southern woman relates her sorority’s deeply humiliating hazing as if it were merely a means to an end. “…and now people get so worked up… Yes, I voted for him. I don’t believe he actually grabbed someone and if he did who really cares?!”
A mother of two daughters believes in attending church and teaching self defense (martial arts and the use of guns). Having served the country four generations, her family raises and lowers our flag each day. Closing borders makes sense. A Cuban immigrant disdains both what her homeland became under Castro and United States’ collaboration. “I will NEVER vote Democrat!”
“I was born into a pile of shit,” a poverty level, Appalachian native declares. Recounting the death of six babies (a seventh lived), she viscerally recalls life in the womb and is against abortion. The marvelous Constance Shulman makes this narrative poignant and scathing. “I’m for gay marriage and gun control, so where does that leave me?! Who do I vote for?!” Who indeed?
Chalfant returns hell bent. “Every cell in my body tells me I have to do something!.. This will NOT be my grandchildren’s legacy!” A timeless ceremony ensues. Dancers circle, actresses rise, fists up; our audience exhales – and detonates applause. The cast remains for conversation.
Chris Henry and Lorna Ventura integrate spoken word and movement with great finesse, sustaining tone despite widely varied narratives. Except for a few in the company presented as cliché and theatrically self conscious, the piece is absorbing and energizing. It manages to embody a plight that, while shared, is VERY differently perceived. How, then, do we save this tattered country as it implodes?!
Cheyenne Sykes Scenic & Lighting Design creates contemporary, apocalyptic atmosphere. Chet Miller, Nata Price (sound) and Lars Jacobson (music) add immeasurably,
Cast: Kathleen Chalfant, Maddie Gorman, Stephanie Block, Gina Baez, Cynthia Mace, Lianah St. Ana, Steffanie Leigh, Gargi Mukherjee, Simone Harrison, Yllka Gashi, Elise Santora, Rosa Curry, Connie Schulman, Angel Desai
Photos by Russ Rowland
Opening: Kathleen Chalfant and dancers
Royal Family Productions presents
Women On Fire-Stories from the Frontlines
As Told by a Group of Anonymous Women
Written by Chris Henry
Choreography by Lorna Ventura
Directed by Chris Henry/Lorna Ventura
Royal Family Performing Arts Space
145 West 46th Street, 3rd Floor
Through March 16, 2020