Monday, May 8, 2017

Little Wars Packs a Big Punch

Prime Productions fills a much-needed empty niche of stories by and about "women of a certain age." 

Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

When is the last time you saw an unironically scripted role for a woman over age 50? Something that didn't involve being a grandmother, witch or some other societal burden? Now, when is the last time you saw a show featuring multiple women over age 50 that fits the same description?

If it's taking you a while to think of something off the bat (particularly something that isn't the Calendar Girls - I mean don't get me wrong, I love it, but it can't be the only one!), don't worry - you're not alone. Women in their sunset years tend not to be the feature focus of most new work. Whether it's a perception about their perceived attractiveness or just an assumption that their lives aren't that interesting, this is a demographic that is consistently overlooked in the creation of productions, much less the performance of them.

And that lack of representation is a damn shame, because there is a wealth of experience, knowledge and beauty to be found in these unique stories. I can attest first hand to this as I am blessed with two wildly interesting and vivacious great aunts who are still living their best lives and having adventures all over the world in their 70's and 80's. They are some of my favorite people in the world, and I treasure the wisdom and thrill they share with every conversation.

Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

Thankfully, this missing gap in American media is beginning to be filled. With strong societal pushes by actresses like Meryl Streep and Patricia Arquette, the celebration of performances by vaunted actresses such as the Dames (Judi Dench, Hellen Mirren and Maggie Smith), and the foundation of new production companies such as Angelina Jolie's, Drew Barrymore's and Reese Witherspoon's, the quantity and quality of roles by and for older women are becoming easier to find and better than ever. For an example, you can check out Grace and Frankie on Netflix (featuring the incomparable Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin), or the hilarious series of films called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Opportunities in this niche are cropping up on the local front as well, most lately in Prime Production's Little Wars at Mixed Blood Theater. Little Wars re-imagines a meeting in the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas as France surrenders to Hitler in World War II. Present for the conversation are Stein and Toklas, as well as their maid Bernadette; the illustrious Agatha Christie; fiesty playwright Lillian Hellman; hilarious writer Dorothy Parker; and Muriel Gardiner, a leader in the resistance to the Nazis who smuggled many Jews out of Germany throughout the war. The women initially meet for a social call, but their cattiness and insatiable curiosity about who Muriel really is quickly leads the conversation to devolve into politics, relational truths, sexual devastation of various ways by horrifying male acts, and the severe racism facing Jews at the time.

Little Wars' plot could easily be bogged down in its heavy subject matter, but this excellent cast ushers it to success. Candace Barrett Birk is wonderful as Gertrude Stein, bringing a Judi Dench-ian fire and brimstone fearsomeness to her role. Sue Scott is wonderfully paired with Birk as Stein's partner Alice B. Toklas, firmly navigating each character's thorny nature and tying them all together throughout the show. Miriam Schwartz is powerful as Stein and Toklas' maid Bernadette, and her horrifying story of sexual violation at the hand of the Nazis near the end of the show left the audience in chills and deafening silence. Vanessa Gamble is perfectly despicable as the overwrought (yet talented) Lillian Hellman; her vivacious performance drives much of the conversation, and she perfectly represents the snotty attitude that drips from Hellman's character. Elizabeth Desotelle is witty and tugs your heart strings as Dorothy Parker. Desotelle's performance reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Moss's turn as Peggy in Mad Men, with a deceptively fierce will masked in a winsome facade. And Alison Edwards is the epitome of droll as the rapacious Agatha Christie. Edwards couldn't be more British in her delivery, and it's a familiar tone that is much welcome amidst the serious subjects of the show.

Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

The set-piece for Little Wars remains fixed on the living quarters of Stein and Toklas. It's a menagerie of books, art pieces (particularly female nudes), well worn furniture and other curios. The artfully disheveled set lends a comfortability to the harsher elements of the script, and it's the perfect setting for a riveting discussion. Costumes are perfectly period appropriate and reflect each character's idiosyncrasies (for example, Stein is swathed in a loud kimono; Bernadette stands ramrod straight in a simple black dress; Christie is impeccably tailored in a camel suit). Lighting, props, and any other production design is kept simple to keep the focus on the story at hand.

Little Wars is set in the familiar trappings of World War II intrigue, but it has something very different to offer than other wartime shows. Featuring a plethora of vivacious, ravenously intelligent, fascinating women, Little Wars has a rich, deep well of things to say about the lives of women at many stages of their lives. Covering everything from racism to rape to homosexuality to the challenges of having a career outside of society's preferred mores,  Little Wars is a delightful, provocative piece that will leave you reflecting on it for days. I am so, so glad that Prime Productions is working to fill the gap for shows for women above middle age, and I hope very much that they succeed. We need more pieces like Little Wars to keep pushing ourselves forward and to learn to harness the gifts that all members of our society, no matter how young or old, are able to give. Little Wars runs at the Mixed Blood Theatre through May 21; get your tickets and more information by clicking on this link.

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