Royal Family Performing Arts Space
145 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves., third floor
Friday - Monday through March 16, $30-$250
Chris Henry’s Women on Fire: Stories from the Frontlines is meant to be an empowering call to action. Unfortunately, it too often resembles an intense Facebook thread in which the majority of the participants are firmly on the left, arguing with a couple of right-wing Trump supporters. But the eighty-minute work is terrifically acted by a diverse cast of fifteen actresses and features dynamic choreography performed by four powerful dancers who serve as a kind of Greek chorus of movement (and occasionally sound).
As you enter the Royal Family Performing Arts Space, yellow caution tape separates the audience from the set, a postapocalyptic scene with black plastic bags partially blocking exposed brick walls and lightbulbs precariously dangling from the ceiling. Women are sitting on chairs and benches in the dark. The caution tape is ripped apart as if declaring, “Here we come!” And one by one, the women walk front and center holding a piece of paper and delivering monologues about rape, misogyny, sexism, abortion, race, discrimination, sexual assault, and other hard-hitting issues. Each story is based on interviews Henry conducted. “I feel like I’m in The Handmaid’s Tale and I can’t get out,” Offred (Stephanie J. Block) says. “1, 2, buckle my shoe / 3, 4, close the door / 5, 6, pick up sticks / 7, 8, lay them straight / 9, 10, big fat hen. That’s how I got through sex,” Kara (Gina Naomi Baez) confesses. “Okay, here’s the deal. You don’t get to be a Roman Polanski fan anymore,” Lisa (Alysia Reiner) shouts. Julia rails against the philosophy behind Pretty Woman. Jo praises Hillary Clinton but lambasts Bill as a sexual predator. The most moving story comes from Maya (Gargi Mukherjee), who details a sexual assault at a threading parlor.
On the other side, Courtney (Maddie Corman) explains, “I think people get so worked up about silly things; I mean, boys will be boys,” Taty accuses the Democrats of being dangerously wrong on Cuba, and Charle (Cynthia Mace) doesn’t understand why Black Lives Matter is more important than Blue Lives Matter. After speaking their peace, the women put their paper into a mini-cauldron. Each segment is preceded by a ferocious interpretive dance by Samantha Butts, Emily Anne Davis, Erica Misilo, Samantha Warner, and/or Mariah Reive, who occasionally interact with the other performers. The effective set design, lighting, and costumes are by Cheyenne Sykes, with original music by Lars Jacobsen; Henry codirects the play with choreographer Lorna Ventura. The impressive rotating cast also includes Kathy Brier, Andréa Burns, Rosa Curry, Paige Gilbert, Judy Gold, Julie Halston, Simone Harrison, Cady Huffman, Steffanie Leigh, Rebecca Nelson, Olivia Oguma, Portia, Connie Ray, Laila Robins, Debra Jo Rupp, Constance Shulman, Lianah Sta. Ana, Desi Waters, and Ashley Williams.
“This play is not meant to be perfect. . . . This is just a pebble in a giant ocean of stories,” Henry explains in a program note. She’s more right than she realizes. Too many of the tales, though true, are clichéd and obvious, preaching to the choir, starting with the first monologue, when Margaret reads a long list of Donald Trump’s shameful deeds while campaigning and then as president. We are familiar with every one of them, so there are no surprises; it feels like we’re watching MSNBC or reading a social media post from Mother Jones. The night I went, the ritual finale did not catch fire because of a faulty lighter. But that did not stop the play’s inner fury, best represented by Rachel, who delivers a profanity-laced tirade against the treatment of women in today’s America.