“Where has this writer been all my life?” Dania asked, as they traced up the stairs and onto the bustling 7th Avenue. With conviction, Dania hopped the last two steps and planted her feet on the curb –– a tiny gesture to express the fighting spirit now instilled in her.
“She has an excellent voice,” Gwen agreed, as they walked. “It’s great conversational writing. Perhaps a touch heavy on the exposition at the start, but I’ll allow it for the fantastical setting.”
“Yeah, how else are you going to explain all the backstory with the armies, and Ren’s father?” Eleanor asked. “You gotta just state it, eventually.”
Gwen shrugged. “They did have a puppet show version of it later,” Gwen said. “By the time that happened, I had already mostly figured out the backstory from the dialogue. But no major concerns beyond that. As I mentioned, excellent dialogue.”
“I love the fighting!” Dania added. “Such strong fighting choreography. It was a smart move to give everyone a different weapon. Helped to diversify the action a lot.”
“Well, Ren and Bala both used swords,” Eleanor pointed out.
“I’d consider sheathed sword and unsheathed sword to be two different weapons.”
Eleanor grumbled. “Perhaps.”
“Certainly,” Gwen said, “I think that was the whole point.”
“Who was the Bala actress?” Dania asked, pulling her program out of her pocket. “She was my favorite, what a weird role to get to play.”
“Sunam Ellis,” Gwen answered. “She did an excellent job. One of the better mentor figures I’ve seen in a play like this –– and it certainly helps that Maggie Lee gave Bala a really concrete motivation that ties into Ren’s journey, as well.”
“Did she, though?” Eleanor asked. “I mean, yes, the gave Bala a motivation, but does it tie into what Ren is doing?”
“So much of the play’s message focuses on repaying old debts, or having the honor to return to people we were separated from. On a plot level, perhaps the two are separate. But Bala finding out about Nessa has an immense effect on what goes down in the final scene.”
Eleanor considered this. There had been something about the final scene –– or, rather, the climactic scene, before the necessary dénoument –– that hadn’t quite sat with her right. But more discussion would reveal the cause.
“I enjoyed the band of actors,” Dania added. “And the fact that the play is basically about the power of theatre, in a way.”
“Sori’s dialogue about why they feel the need to make art really stuck with me,” Gwen said. “For obvious reasons. I am me.”
“I wanted to see more Sori!” Dania said. “Reza too. I felt like Miro was getting all the good scenes.”
“Well, I think it was obvious why that happened,” Eleanor said. “Besides, the Miro actor –– Fune Tautala –– what a strong presence onstage! He hits that perfect sweet spot between wanting to root for him, and not entirely trusting him. Throw in the dialogue with Ren and it’s just a knockout pair of performances from him and Ayo Tushinde.”
“It’s such an ensemble story, which is impressive considering the form,” Gwen said. “Lone hero in the desert stories are so much about the lead figure, the nomad at center. Lee does deft work in diversifying the focus and letting everyone have their moment to gain the audience’s sympathy.”
“I was wondering, though,” Dania said. “Why were they playing, like, cowboy music during the pre- and post-show? Isn’t the story set somewhere in Asia?”
“Where did you get Asia?”
“Context clues,” Dania said. She looked up and, as if to confirm her view, glanced around at Seattle’s International District, where Theatre Off Jackson was located. She silently mused that perhaps the koi décor had influenced her view.
“She’s not entirely wrong, though,” Eleanor defended. “Most of the characters and locations have Eastern-sounding names. The set –– really excellent minimalism from Parmida Ziaei on those falling curtains –– has the hallmarks of that region throughout it. Not to mention, most obviously, the live music. Zhangu drum, flute and fife. There are clear cultural signifiers in play here.”
“That live musician, by the way!” Dania jumped in. “Did you notice that she was live mixing the score during Ren and Miro’s morning rituals? While playing all the parts? She almost stole the entire performance for me.”
“She added an immense amount of atmosphere,” Gwen agreed. “I really hope Lee included her in the script, or has at least added her in at this point. It would be an entirely different story without her.”
“What’s her name?” Dania checked the program again. “Leanna Keith. What a badass. That dream sequence.”
“I’m always hesitant about using silks onstage for water, but it sort of worked,” Gwen admitted. “At least this time it was already within an abstract dream sequence.”
“Hold on, we’re getting off-topic,” Eleanor warned. “We’re debating if the play is set in the East. I think it is.”
“I find it hard to say for certain,” Gwen said. “Every location is fictional, regardless of what it’s called. The cast is diverse –– if they were gunning for an all-Asian cast, I don’t see why only half the cast would be. Did you see the lobby display?”
“The one about the cowboy movies and samurai movies?” Dania recalled. “Yep. What about it?”
“It brought up the similarities between the two genres. How both deal with questions of honor and one’s obligations to other people’s interests. My reading of the play –– and I’d be fine if it turns out I’m wrong –– was that the cultural location was intentionally left neutral, to make the moral more universal.”
Eleanor smirked. “I’d argue the moral is still universal if you set the play somewhere in Asia. Truth is truth, wherever it’s said. But I think what I’m hung up on more than that is Bala’s actions in the play.”
“What about them?” Dania said. “I was originally sort of confused about why she was staying with Ren, but by the end it was pretty clear why.”
“It’s sort of like…” Eleanor struggled to search for the right comparison. Ren’s convictions in her quest throughout the play clashed fiercely with the solemn ending scene, in a way that Eleanor could tell was intentional. But what was another story about going on a quest and only learning at the end that you can’t…
Eleanor grinned. “Do you remember Borealis? The show at The House Theatre of Chicago from back in September?”
“Vaguely,” Dania said. She squinted, to better recollect. “That’s the one about the girl saving her brother from the job on the oil rig, right?”
“Basically,” Eleanor said.
“Another revenge story with a twist in the end,” Gwen said.
“The two are interesting to compare, right?” Eleanor asked. “I think I liked Sheathed more, but they both make the same sort of point: doing anything ‘for honor’ is ultimately sort of dumb.”
“Well, perhaps,” Gwen responded, after a moment. “The issue I had with Borealis was that its message, about how Cozbi’s blindly heroic quest was actually doing more harm than good, seemed like one that the script didn’t intend to make. Sheathed clearly has a more critical and complex eye on the subject of being honor-bound.”
“I still don’t think ‘honor’ comes out looking good in Sheathed,” Eleanor added. “Considering where it leaves Ren and Bala at the end of the play.”
“I gotta agree with El here, Gwen,” Dania said. “There was definitely a point where I realized how the play was going to end, and was desperately hoping something else less conventional would jump out of nowhere.”
“That lack of satisfaction in an expected outcome makes for a more impactful message, though,” Gwen argued. “If Lee started throwing in twists for twists’ sake, what would all the buildup be building up to?”
“It’s just my thoughts on it,” Dania said. “I think it’s one of those plays where you guys can debate all you want about the moral and stuff, but people like me are always going to like it because it contains fighting and theatre in it. It’s just a really fun night at the theatre.”
“I wonder if May Nguyen Lee is working on other fight choreography stuff coming up,” Eleanor said. “Do you think she knows about Babes With Blades in Chicago?”
“Seattle probably has an equivalent,” Gwen mused. “Maybe this is the equivalent. I’ve never seen a show from Macha Theatre Works before, and I’m certainly walking away with a strong positive impression.”
“This is the end of their season this year. At least mainstage programming,” Eleanor said. She had pulled up the company’s website on her phone.
“Well, we’ll have to come back when they do more things,” Dania said. “I just want to see more actors fighting with swords onstage. Also, actors playing actors fighting with swords.”
“Do you think they would ever make the Foxfire Players into a real thing?” Eleanor wondered. “Actually go from town to town and have Maile Wong and Dylan Smith fight each other in the street?”
“I’d watch it,” Gwen answered.
The three continued to discuss the possibility of bringing Foxfire’s “spectacles and wonders” into the real world, all the while continuing to walk in the same direction.
Image Credit: (l to r) Sunam Ellis & Ayo Tushinde / Joe Iano Photography