In a video interview on The Factory Theater website, Artistic Director Scott OKen says of the genesis of his latest play, Fight City, “I wanted to turn the current gender politics around… [and] I wanted to do an action play…that has a real kickass female police force that beat each other up with sticks.” This is exactly what Fight City delivers in the form of a clever comedy that satirizes standard sexist tropes within the action genre.
This sixteen actor ensemble piece, skillfully directed by Jill Oliver, is set in a dystopian 2077. The world order has collapsed. Yet in spite of the elimination of guns, society is violent and lawless. Women are an all powerful majority. Men are disenfranchised and organize for equal rights. The protagonist, Barb Davies (Jennifer Betancourt) is a skilled fighter with the Central City Police Department’s elite all-female fighting force, the ironically named Peace Keepers. Her fellow wisecracking PK compatriots are played with sharp-tongued swagger by Meredith Rae Lyons (White), Almanya Narula (Avory) and Ashley Yates (Argent). Together they fight criminals while delivering witty one liners.
A defining attribute of standard cops-versus-criminals action stories is an exaggerated performance of hyper-masculine stereotypes. Seeing a cast of women embody this style draws attention to it’s absurdity. Fight City humorously explores the performance of gender in a way similar to that of ATC’s production of Jaclyn Blackhaus’s Men on Boats, directed by Will Davis earlier this season. That show examined a spectrum of masculinities by casting an all female-identifying ensemble to play a variety of male archetypes. In different ways both plays explore how rituals of masculinity function to reinforce codes of behavior within male spaces.
OKen gets a lot of comedic mileage out of this gender role reversal. He has invented a parallel vocabulary of slang to fit the female-centric culture. Crude references to both male and female anatomy illuminates the role language plays in perpetuating gender stereotypes. Narula, as Barb’s salty partner, Avory, gleefully makes dirty jokes while slapping men’s behinds. Lt. Quaife (Jen Bosworth) rags on her husband. In some of the play’s best topical humor, Richards (Grace Odumosu), cheers on her activist boyfriend but still can’t help (wo)man spreading across an entire bench, and (wo)man-splaining to the guys about how oppressed they are, all while congratulating herself on being super woke.
In addition to the silliness, OKen offers up a scathing critique of the action genre’s normalization of rape culture. Showing men being treated the way women are typically treated in action plots reveals how reliant the genre is on jokes made at the expense of women, as well as how much of the drama in this genre is generated by women’s victimization and abuse. For instance in one scene, Erica (Kim Boler), in a sinister send-up of a stock bloodthirsty-villain, gets jacked-up on crack whiffits, kills people for fun, then celebrates by raping a man she’s lured into her hideaway. Later she callously brags about it.
The male characters in Fight City employ the usual range of strategies to cope with discrimination, harassment and abuse. Some of them try to brush it off and rise above, some employ subversive humor, others organize and fight back. Weatherfoot (Harrison Weger), the first male PK, patiently puts up with sexist jeers until he gets a chance to prove his moxie, following a classic arc usually assigned to female characters. Eric Frederkison’s performance as Verne, victim turned reluctant activist, reminds us of the serious stakes for men trapped in this system. And Relf, the much abused CCPD secretary, played sensitively by Josh Zagoren, highlights how debasing harassment is for those on the receiving end. It is also Relf, seeking relief from this abuse, and perhaps revenge, that leads him to turn informant for Erica who later rapes him. Oliver appropriately presents this as a frightening and serious moment.
As one might expect, the main attraction of Fight City is its stellar fight choreography. Fight Directors Maureen Yasko and Chris Smith offer up stage combat that’s intense, realistic and bloody. (If you sit in the front you may get splattered.) The fighting style unique to the PKs is also nicely integrated into the plot in a way that both forwards the story and enhances character development. The spectacle of all female fight sequences has potential to be overly sexualized, but Oliver steers clear of this. Her focus is showcasing what women’s bodies are capable of, presenting her characters as subject, not object. Carla McDowell’s costume design well-supports this choice managing to be tastefully futuristic without being fetishistic.
In a season of Chicago theater where the subject of police violence has taken center stage, it’s impossible not to register that, in spite of it’s escapist fun, Fight City is inescapably a play about a bunch of exceedingly violent cops. And while the play doesn’t get too philosophical about the problem of police brutality, it’s at least self-conscious of this fact. When Barb’s mother Margret Davies (Mandy Walsh), legendary for her fighting skills, drops by the department she asks, “Any good kills lately?” Under Margret’s tenure suspects were routinely taken “out back” to have their necks broken. Barb retorts, “We don’t have to do that anymore.” And, although Barb does a lot of head-bashing herself, the play hints she just might be able to restore at least a bit of due process to the system.
Fight City is an entertaining summer show with a strong feminist message and loads of exhilarating fight scenes!
Photos: Michael Courier
Directed by: Jill Oliver
Written by: Scott OKen
Runs from July 21st to August 26th
Barb Davies – Jennifer Betancourt
Margaret Davies – Mandy Walsh*
Avory – Almanya Narula
Weatherfoot – Harrison Weger
Argent – Ashley Yates
White – Meredith Rae Lyons
Lt. Quaife/Noone – Jen Bosworth
Erica Burdon – Kim Boler*
Valentine – Susan Wingerter
Chandler/Thug – Brittany Ellis
Price/Thug – Megan Schemmel
Verne/Steele – Eric Frederickson
Leo – Jae K. Renfrow
Terry – Linsey Falls*
Relf – Josh Zagoren
Richards – Grace Odumosu
Understudy (Leo/Terry/Verne) – Colin Milroy*
Understudy (Weatherfoot/Relf) – Josh Greiveldinger
Understudy (Steele) – Dan Krall
Understudy (Davies/Avory) – Kim Fukawa
Understudy (Argent/White/Richards) – Josephine Longo
Understudy (Margaret/Valentine) – Elizabeth MacDougald
Understudy (Erica/Lt. Quaife/Noone) – Sara Robinson
Understudy (Chandler/Price/Thugs 1 & 2)– Cory Griffith
Playwright – Scott OKen*
Director – Jill Oliver*
Assistant Director – Kevin Alves*
Stage Manager – Phil Claudnic*
Assistant Stage Manager – Jermaine Edward Thomas*
Production Manager – Manny Tamayo*
Assistant Production Manager – Greg Caldwell*
Fight Director – Maureen Yasko
Fight Director – Chris Smith
Set Design – Sarah Lewis
Technical Director – Amie Zimmerman
Lighting Design – Emma Deane
Master Electrician – C.W. Van Baale*
Sound Design – Ben Zeman
Costume Design – Carla McDowell
Props Design – Albert Gogetem
Graphic Design – Jason Moody*
Fight Captain –Mandy Walsh*
Fight Captain – Meredith Rae Lyons
Consultant – Maggie Scrantom
All staged intimacy was professionally designed
*Factory Ensemble Member
BIAS ALERT: Both Brittany Ellis and Ashley Yates have acted in my work in the past and I think they’re both brilliant.