Friday, March 13, 2020

Guest Review 23 (2019-2020): Review: WOMEN ON FIRE: STORIES FROM THE FRONTLINE

Dear Readers: This will be the last review posted here until the spread of Covid-19 is considered sufficiently under control to warrant the reopening of the New York theatre. I send you all my best wishes for your continued health and well-being and look forward to once more sharing my reviews with you. Stay healthy. Sam

“Solo Performances, United” ****

By Elyse Orecchio (guest reviewer)
Kathleen Chalfant and company. All photos: Russ Rowland.
It felt like a Prohibition-era secret gathering, only with women’s rights being banned instead of booze. It was the day after International Women’s Day and female power was in the air (as well as all over social media). As soon I entered the theatre, Royal Family Productions’ Women On Fire: Stories From the Frontlines grabbed my attention. 
Gargi Mukherjee. All photos: Russ Rowland.
The venue is in such an unassuming building, I double-checked the address to make sure I was in the right place. A few flights of rickety stairs later, I entered it to be greeted by a burning incense fragrance that my friend and I simultaneously said smelled like Vick’s VapoRub. Once seated, on a chair that was falling apart, I got a good look at the stage. Fifteen actresses were seated in a few rows of chairs behind crime-scene tape, while garbage bags adorned the walls as part of Cheyenne Sykes’s post-apocalyptic-dumpster design. The women chatted among themselves as the audience gathered. 

Women on Fire, written by Chris Henry, features 15 monologues by a rotating cast of actresses, some of whom also rotate which monologue they’ll be performing on a given evening, adding to the intentional anonymity of the stories. Lorna Ventura’s fiery choreography brings additional shaping to many of the pieces.  
 Constance Shulman, Erica Misilo.
The one actress with a more defined and consistent role is Kathleen Chalfant (Tony nominee for the original Angels in America), who hosts the event. She is elegant and radiant in her bright red suit, and begins the production with a no-holds-barred monologue that lists all of the current president’s dirty misdeeds of the past four years. As she screamed her way through it, the audience was effectively pumped, but I was disappointed; the piece sounded more like a meme being read aloud than a story.

Thankfully, the monologues improve as the night progresses. Based on true stories, they are hit or miss in terms of writing and delivery, but all effective in touching on feminist themes from diverse cultural and socio-economic perspectives. A Bangladeshi woman is sexually abused at her eyebrow threading salon, while a white blonde waxes nostalgic on the “boys will be boys” days of sorority hazing.

For me, the most delicious moments involved the marriage of a fabulous actress with fabulous material. The standouts when I attended were coincidentally both delivered by actresses from Orange Is the New Black: Alysia Reiner, who comes out blazing, “If one more person tells me we have to judge artists for their work and not their personal lives . . . ,” and Constance Shulman, as a conflicted woman who believes in gun control and gay marriage but not abortion. She poignantly ponders, “So where does that leave me?” Because 90% of the monologues are preaching to the royal blue choir, I was particularly interested in the several right-bent stories presented with a mix of honesty and confusion.  
Company for Women on Fire.
I want to mention the prop star: a piece of paper held by each actress containing her monologue. Given the rotating cast, many—but not all—of the women glance at it from time to time to get a line. Chris Henry says, “This play is not meant to be perfect. I wanted to create some way that women could pick up a story and read it and it would become art.” Some might call it art; others might call it distracting. I found myself paying too much attention to which women were off-book. 

That said, I applaud Henry for working those pieces of paper into the production so brilliantly. Each woman throws her paper—her story—in a trash can after she’s said her piece. In the end, Chalfant uses a lighter to set them all ablaze, creating not only a powerful visual, but scent. 

The production concludes with an invitation to stay and chat with the cast, with the intention of weaving together more stories and voices. The Covid-19 crisis has closed the show, so I can say only that, if it reopens, Women on Fire will offer some interested theatregoers the multifaceted catharsis they may be seeking.

Royal Family Performing Arts Space
145 W. 46th St., NYC
Closed until further notice