Powerful women, strong acting, cohesive design, and lots of sword fighting combine for an exciting night of theatre. The world-premiere production runs through March 24 at Theatre Off Jackson.
We all have them: the ghosts that ride around with us, in the forms of loss, guilt, shame, or second-guessing, which we feel powerless to discard. Worst are the ones that weigh heavily enough they’ve come to define us, or at least some slice of us — and yet we may well be the only ones who remember them at all.
It is these ghosts which drive the action in Maggie Lee’s new play, Sheathed — but thematically, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In the land of the play, a civil war has turned citizens into soldiers; the war is 10 years in the past, but nonetheless still defines the characters’ memories and relationships to their present. In particular, it defines the journey of lead character Ren (played by Ayo Tushinde), a young warrior who is driven — rather rudderlessly, it seems — by a desire to avenge her deceased father, a soldier whom she barely knew. The others with a more corporeal connection to the war, meanwhile, seem eager to forget it.
At the center of Sheathed are two warriors: one green and over-eager, the other a battle-weary veteran. The aforementioned impulsive one, Ren, is so eager to prove the rightness of her cause, she’ll draw her sword on anyone, at any time. Indeed, in the very first scene we meet her, Ren is ready to worship a great warrior one moment, and pulling her blade on her the next.
Though she’s been trained through the formal mechanisms enough to have great confidence in her blade skills, Ren possesses none of the restraint and focus that makes for the great warriors. She learns that early on in the play, by getting knocked on her ass by battle-weary veteran Bala (played by Sunam Ellis), the aforementioned warrior at the other end of the blade. With little enthusiasm, hardened expert Bala fends Ren off quickly and takes her sword, all without drawing her own.
Bala, who’s still haunted by the one her sword couldn’t save, subscribes to a straightforward philosophy: if she must pull her weapon, it will be lethal. But her battle aptitude is so sharp, and her combat skills so honed, that for her pulling a sword is rarely necessary. What is necessary is for both of them to figure out how they’re going to make a living, as the war has taken a protracted toll on the country which, it seems, has abandoned its vets to fend for themselves. Ren joins up with a traveling band of fight-entertainers, happy to show off her blade skills, and Bala unenthusiastically comes along, mostly to eat all their food. Together, they set out on a journey to find and slay their ghosts. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t all go as smoothly as planned.
There are so many elements that make Sheathed a delight to watch, and a standout among theatre even in an abundant season of it. First, it’s the interplay between the two lead characters. Lee is a comedy writer, and the combination here of that, Tushinde and Ellis’s acting, and Poisson’s direction are comedic gold. Supporting actors Fune Tautala, Maile Wong, Natalie Berg, Isis King, and Dylan Smith are also strong players whose characters help create the post-war world that’s core to the story. Second is the sword fighting and movement, which May Nguyen Lee and Alyza DelPan-Monley choreographed beautifully. Third, it’s the design work, which created just the right universe and ambiance for the play. That included live music composed and performed by Leanna Keith and sound designed by Johanna Melamed that set the tone (literally) for peace and battle alike; a set, designed by Parmida Ziaei, that is at once a peaceful landscape and a warrior backdrop; and stand-out costumes by Jocelyne Fowler and lighting by Ahren Buhmann that finished the picture.
This is theatre magic at its finest. Lacking the monetary resources of the largest companies, Macha has nonetheless committed itself, through creativity and ingenuity, to telling “fearless female” stories in a way that befits them: fiercely. Credit Sheathed director and Macha Artistic Director Amy Poisson for a lot of that. In addition to a long and productive history with Lee’s work, Poisson has brought to life an incredible variety of pieces, from a live-cooking solo show last year at West of Lenin, to a Seattle grunge epic of all-female rockers at ACT’s largest stage in 2013. Macha itself has been on fire this past year, too, with strong productions of Veils by Tom Coash (at West of Lenin), and Smoke & Dust by Joy McCullough-Carranza (at Theatre Off Jackson), along with an active new works reading series, the Distillery.
There’s a divided country, once again; if the factions come to blows, do things get better or worse? The answer is worse, according to ‘Sheathed,’ and its scars will be lasting ones.
As for the playwright, it’s tough to write something about Maggie Lee’s craft in this play that hasn’t already been said, but if I were to add anything it would be this: the world Lee creates here is so compelling not just because it’s fantasy, but because it’s simultaneously so recognizable as our own. There’s a divided country, once again; if the factions come to blows, do things get better or worse? The answer is worse, according to Sheathed, and its scars will be lasting ones. Meanwhile, the separation of haves vs. have-nots remains; education is for the privileged; and battlefield veterans are abandoned after service.
Lee has a special gift for weaving all sorts of disparate elements into a piece that result in a surprisingly cohesive whole. Here, strands of Renaissance-era duels, samurai sagas, and classic Westerns are all prominent; but there are also vibes of modern comedic bravado, from Iron Chef and Kung Fu to a telenovela sort of over-the-top. Somehow, all those aesthetics never feel out of place or clashy.
Lee’s writing is tight, the show is efficient, and the characters well-drawn. But it’s not just that. Lee has a unique ability to visualize a whole separate world — which could be past or future — that is not our own but very much feels like it. And the particular world she walks us through in Sheathed has a lot of parallels to where our own people are now (nationally and globally) and may continue to languish in the future: struggling to heal battle scars from decades of neglect and division.
All in all, Macha’s Sheathed is a stunning production and the latest example of why Maggie Lee, one of the most prolific local playwrights, is also one of the best and most creative.
Sheathed runs through 3/24 at Theatre Off Jackson in the International District. Tickets are $25, available here; $10 matinee 3/17 and pay-what-you-can performance 3/20. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all gender-neutral, multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible, through an alley entrance — please contact venue ahead of time to ensure smooth access.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.