It’s become increasingly apparent over the last few years that Seattle playwright MAGGIE LEE is tremendously talented. She’s written a number of plays very successfully produced at theaters all over Seattle (as well as outside Seattle as well) including at Seattle Public Theater, Theater Schmeater, Pony World, Pork Filled Productions, Live Girls, ReACT, SIS Productions and most recently, her currently running play SHEATHED produced by Macha Theatre Works at the International District’s Theatre Off Jackson.
A genre writer, Lee’s work is rooted in the worlds of fantasy, science fiction, horror and adventure. Among her most popular works are a trio of “Steampunk” plays set in a world that’s part 19th century steam powered and part futuristic science fantasy, including The Tumbleweed Zephyr and A Hand of Talons. All her plays feature strong female characters in positions of power with equally strong male characters that are frequently in support if not subservient to the women. Elements of Asian history, folklore, religions and even pop culture are tightly woven into her works.
And, while her work relies on traditional themes and structures in genre writing, Lee has a gift for turning many of those over used tropes in popular culture art and entertainment. You might THINK you know where the plotting is going, but Lee knows how to bend and shape a plot or a narrative device or a character into something unique, very different and highly entertaining.
And, all her tricks, gifts and talents are on display in Sheathed, her witty and clever take on traditional Japanese samurai tales of revenge, honor and dazzling swordsmanship that centers on a pair of fascinating female warriors and set in one of Maggie Lee’s unusual landscapes where East meets West and populated by a diverse community of fascinating characters.
Sheathed centers on (and opens with) the meeting of young Ren, a female warrior recently done with her training and ready to avenge the death of her dishonored father, a general in a not long ago completed war between feuding clans, the Tsuka and the Kaji. The rather humorless Ren meets Bala, a middle aged female foot soldier and famed fighter who is now more of a “ronin” a warrior without a war or a leader who gets by the best they can, as mercenary, beggar, conman or simple wanderer. Ren is insulted by Bala and challenges the older woman to a duel but after Bala easily outwits her, but does not kill her, begs Bala to become her mentor and continue her training.
Bala, tired of war and bloodshed, wants no part of that kind of life but grudgingly allows Ren to follow her in the same direction, partly to keep an eye on the impetuous youth in her quest to seek honor for her father as well as curiosity to see how it pans out. The two eventually encounter a troupe of performers led by the mysterious and charismatic Miro, a secretive man with his own ties to the days of war and bloodshed.
Obviously, secrets and back stories are revealed (including information on Bala’s past and her deep love for a female schoolmate named Nessa) which leads to…some painful lessons being learned by all the characters.
Again, it’s a cleverly plotted script centered on two well drawn and powerful female characters portraying roles that women don’t normally take in most stories, as decisive tough people who are physically and mentally equal if not more so, than any male character. Ms Lee’s plotting is smart and original and she has a great gift for crafting crackling sharp dialogue for all her characters, most especially the wisecracking Bala character that is terrifically played by Sunam Ellis who has very quickly become one of Seattle’s most interesting actresses. It’s a very funny and wry performance but one nicely shadowed by the character’s demons including the expression of great pain over the loss of her childhood friend. It’s yet another bravura performance by Ms Ellis and one of many reasons to check out this production.
She’s also nicely paired with Ayo Tushinde, another fascinating Seattle actress who excels in roles requiring tough, fearlessly flawed characters. Her Ren is foolishly callow at times as well as hilariously humorless but there’s also a shy tenderness required and Ms Tushinde plays all those different facets with great nuance.
The supporting cast is also strong with Fune Tautala especially commanding as the gentle leader with his own secrets. Mr. Tautala is one of those stealth actors in town who needs to be seen in more roles. He has terrific stage presence yet can also project vulnerability. He’s a physically imposing actor who can emotionally and charismatically fill a stage but also fit into an ensemble of other actors.
And, the rest of the ensemble is terrific, too, with fine work from Maile Wong, Dylan Smith and Isis King as other members of the theater troupe plus Natalie Berg playing the ghostly presence of a long lost love as well as a descendant of that love.
There’s also some terrific live music/sound work from Leanna Keith, who is featured onstage as part of the troupe. The music and sound become an integral part of the piece and add a great deal to the enjoyment of the show.
The show also benefits from Amy Poisson’s assured direction and staging which would also include the collaboration of movement director Alyza DelPan-Monley and fight director May Nguyen Lee. It’s frequently a fast moving show, with much movement but the subtler, still moments are handled equally as well.
It’s a small budget kind of show but it has very handsome design work including Parmida Ziaei’s scenic and props design and Jocelyn Fowler’s costumes which all reflect the Eastern influences and themes of the play.
Obviously, it’s going to be a big ole YES as to whether or not you should go see see Sheathed. Not only is it a very entertaining production but it’s also a very well written play and proof that it’s high time some of the bigger theater companies start paying some attention to the work of Maggie Lee. Not that “big” necessarily means better but the larger budgets available at big Equity level houses like ACT or Seattle Rep mean that the artists can be better paid but also bigger budgets for expanded design elements. As well, as bigger houses mean larger audiences can be exposed to this great play and other work by the playwright.
And, if the Rep and ACT can support so many local male playwrights like Steven Dietz and Yussef el Guindi with multiple productions, why not terrific local female playwrights like Maggie Lee and Kelleen Conway Blanchard?
Get on that, Seattle Rep and ACT.