Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. By Megan Carney. Directed by Tara Mallen. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 15mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
The female soldier is one of the most significant developments of the 21st century that we often overlook; to have women employed, in large numbers, as riflemen, pilots, mechanics, and commanders alongside men in battle is still a very new phenomenon.
But the process of integrating women warriors—not just into the military, but into our collective consciousness and conception of war—is still in its infancy. The U.S.'s ban on front-line combat was only lifted last year, after women had already spent a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan trading bullets and bombs with the enemy. Jokes like “boobs on the ground” are still shockingly common, and female veterans have become an underserved and invisible population that deserves better from us.
Yet while the presence of women on the battlefield is of incredible significance, there’s also the simple truth: They’re soldiers, full stop. Rivendell Theatre Ensemble's Women at War, an interview-based premiere by company member Megan Carney, is a series of vignettes that follow a cast of female airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines through all aspects of their military life. From the first scream of the drill sergeant to coming home from deployment, the all-female show is first and foremost about the lived experiences of women in uniform, from the tragic to the hilarious and everything in-between.
Immediately the cast feels real. Their deliveries are intentionally rough around the edges and unpracticed, while filled with unassuming and bare emotions. While the actresses’ individual rhythms, verbal tics and movements create distinct personalities that ground their stories, Women at War is almost populated with voices rather than characters. For the first time I found the cliché to be true: As a performance, it really speaks directly to you. It’s as uncomfortable, thrilling, and honest as reading someone’s diary. That the show is well-researched and draws inspiration from interviews with female veterans lends further credence to its overwhelming frankness.
This is not an “issue” play, it’s not a woman-in-a-man’s-world story and it’s not a girl-power rallying cry. It’s about the people in uniform who are women. The indoctrination of boot camp makes it clear that this is their military, and if a few gender-specific issues come up, that’s just part of navigating the job to which they’ve committed themselves. And under Tara Mallen's direction, Women at War rolls smoothly from one vignette to the next, establishing an emotional cadence that can turn on a dime. It’s all part of the soldier’s reality, where hard work and pride and fear and weakness are in play every moment.
Many of the challenges and emotions explored are universal to veterans regardless of gender—and that’s how Women at War hits hardest. To watch an all-female cast explore their service and sacrifices makes well-trodden ground feel completely new. The truth is, all our tropes and images of soldiers are built around men and seen through men’s eyes. The production hammers through those images to incredible effect. Perhaps the most meaningful thing I can say is that it feels important: important to have this play, important to see the military life as a female experience. And like any great play, Women at War makes its point felt rather than understood.