|A moment in Sheathed (Joe Iano Photography)|
Macha Theatre Works
(at Theatre Off Jackson)
Through March 24, 2019
An epic struggle of philosophies – vengeance versus reconciliation – plays out on stage at Theatre Off Jackson in Maggie Lee’s world premiere play, Sheathed! Powerful women, highly trained in sword combat, debate and spar, verbally and physically, about whether it’s better to follow through with the honor-code of vengeance or if the world is better off trying to accept prior battle-strife and the thousands of dead combatants in order to build a more lasting peace.
The feeling of the play is akin to the science-fiction fantasy on the shelves of your local bookstore. By the end of the play, you’re pretty sure that Lee’s premise is that vengeance doesn’t work out so well, but the journey is one great ride, with a lot of laughs sprinkled in to leaven the debate.
Ren (Ayo Tushinde) is a young woman on a quest to find and duel the last of five generals who she believes conspired to betray her father-general during an epic war. She meets Bala (Sunam Ellis), a veteran fighter from the recent war, who can hardly be bothered to associate with the young quester, but grudgingly agrees to travel “in the same direction.”
Bala has her own quest to manage, besieged by the ghost of her dearest friend (Natalie Berg). Bala had promised to find her and so far has failed.
Along the way, they meet a band of actors who act out the war to gain them enough coin to keep going. When Ren accidentally wounds one, she must take over the role to make amends. The two travelers wander with Riza (Isis King), the doctor and leader, Miro (Fune Tautala), the theatrical manager, Sori (Maile Wong) and Tae (Dylan Smith), the actors.
More details of the story would simply reveal too much of the story. It’s best to read the book – oops, see the play – yourself!
Directing by Amy Poisson, whose association with Lee is long and deep, means that a strong mind-meld between writer and director creates solid choices for what the technical requirements should be. A wonderful musician, Leanna Keith (augmented by sound designer Joanna Melamed), provides both background music and sound effects that are crucial to certain moments.
There are some moments where the characters must move at faster than human speed and a flute sound effect creates just the magical assist to allow our minds to perceive it that way. Similarly, deep drum sounds create the sense of pending doom or the sonorous moves of ritualistic battle preparations.
Spare set designs with a small bridge, large rocks, a silky cloth river, and some Asian-style backdrops (by Parmida Ziaei) allow for instant changes in location and a sense of travel. Lighting designer Ahren Buhmann creates subtle shifts in time with gentle changes.
Costumer Jocelyne Fowler is also no stranger to Lee plays, and provides clearly-imagined and well-executed costumes for the world of continuity needed. Fight director May Nguyen Lee choreographs exacting battles with real weapons that demand a high level of conscious sword-play for the actors not to get hurt!
While every actor here does a terrific job, Ellis’ grumpy, unprepossessing and gives-no-fucks Bala is just a joy throughout. If Lee needs another idea for a series, I would be so down for more Bala stories!
As Lee has already demonstrated through her world premiere series of steampunk plays, she is a playwright to be reckoned with. Don’t miss this super show!