Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ciara and Grounded: Powerful Women on Stage

The Edinburgh Fringe offered a number of solo shows with strong and dynamic female characters.   In two shows at the Traverse Theatre, Ciara by David Harrower and Grounded by George Brant, the women are being used by the world around them.  They believe in people and institutions which ultimately betray them.

Presented in very different ways with totally unique styles, there was something to these unexpected women that made me think of the plays as in dynamic conversation with each other.  These women were self-possessed and unique.  One a gallery owner with a love of art who understands the seamy criminal underworld in the most personal way.  The other a female air force pilot who becomes a mother and has to juggle two very different ways of life.  They are both pulled in opposing directions by the two aspects of their lives and for a while they walk the tightrope.  But in the end, neither's balance is good enough to stay upright forever.  


CIARA

"Show them you seek nothing."

Poised in a ballgown, glass of champagne in hand, seated in what looks like a warehouse with a filthy mattress on the floor, Blythe Duff is a BAMF in David Harrower's play Ciara.  She is the daughter and wife of a Glasgow crime lord. Knowledgeable about the family business she is tough but elegant. Perceptive and smart—too smart—she sees and understands more than she should and with that knowledge there is pain.

A portrait of Glasgow, fathers and daughters, men and women, Harrower's play oscillates between the realities of today and memories of the past. Ciara tells up her story which weaves in issues of tradition, honor, power, and loss with bitter sarcasm and a broken heart. The play itself is a colorful monologue that flits through time. A good tale but at times the jokes went over my head as the play pokes fun at Glasgow and local Scottish personalities and places.  Nevertheless Duff is riveting.

After seeing her in Good with People earlier this year I was excited to see her in another collaboration with Harrower. She spins a yarn, shows her strength and her vulnerabilities, and pulls herself back together in front of our eyes as quickly as she fell apart. Duff’s a fantastic actress and she elevates the material into something special.

***


GROUNDED

“It would be a different book if Odysseus came home from the war every day.”

Like a caged bird, The Pilot (Lucy Ellinson) stands in a cube made of scrims. When she looks up at what would be the sky, her eyes sparkle. When she talks about flying in “the blue” she becomes animated and electric. She is an American hot-shot air force pilot but when she learns she is pregnant she becomes “grounded—the pilot’s nightmare.” For a time motherhood is a distraction but she eagerly returns to service when she can, only to discover that air force pilots are no longer flying bomb dropping missions in F-16s. Instead they are manning drone planes. She will go to work every day in Las Vegas and with a joystick and computer screen control the plane and bombs to be dropped thousands of miles away.

This is the world of George Brant's monologue, Grounded, directed by Christopher Haydon.  

Instead of the blue, she spends her 12-hour shifts staring at “the gray”—a view of the ground from the camera on her drone plane. Suddenly, “the threat of death has been removed from our lives.” She can go home every night to her 3-year-old daughter and her husband. But as she would struggle to adjust when she would occasionally go home after overseas deployments, the daily readjustment from war to home is that same process happening every day.

Ellinson is as much a fly guy as Tom Cruise in Top Gun. All hopped up on fast planes and aggression, there is nowhere to blow off steam in the “chair force” drone trailers. And slowly the daily shift from war to home life takes its toll on her. Through lighting and projections on the floor, we shift between her home and her drone life.   Ellinson’s voice changes when she speaks to her daughter—surprising herself that she “sounds like a Mom.” But the longer this goes on the harder she finds it to turn off drone life.  As she becomes more fixated on her drone's computer screen, we get pulled along with her.  She is killing "bad guys" who are burying roadside IEDs, fiercely trying to protect her guys, scouring the gray blobs for anything useful. 

As she talks non-stop about what she is seeing, all I could think of is Tetris brain.  After playing Tetris for too long, you start to see Tetris everywhere.  And so does the Pilot.  The gray begins to bleed from the computer screen to her home life. As the audience, we too begin to get pulled into this tiny cube of dulled color and obsessive thoughts.

Ellinson embraces the physical strut of her military character and yet we never forget she is a woman. I’m not sure I’ve seen a character like this on stage before.  I saw Ellinson in Oh the Humanity last year at the Fringe and this role is totally different. With a range from drama to comedy, she continues to be a fascinating stage presence.

Ultimately I thought the play went on just a tiny bit too long but the growing intensity of the material and Ellinson’s performance made it another strong entry at the Traverse Theatre this year.


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