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Women at Work

Two new world-premiere productions put their female protagonists to the test.

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RICK POLLOCK
  • Rick Pollock

Tragedy plus time equals comedy, an old proverb goes. After four years, playwright Jenny Kokai was ready to put that maxim to the test.

Plan-B Theatre Co.'s new Singing to the Brine Shrimp goes for absurdity in its staging, crafting a musical that includes talking and singing puppets. But it was born out of a real-life event that left Kokai frustrated and disillusioned—a playwriting lab in New York where she felt that being from Utah had other participants acting condescending to her. "The people in New York had a perception of who a person, or a writer, from Utah was," Kokai recalls. "And I had just moved there, so I didn't really identify with that. Most of the people were a lot younger than me, confused by the fact that I was a mom. ... It kept getting in the way of us just making art. I was there to do work and make the play better, but we never really got around to doing that.

"Then, right before my big reading, something truly tragic happened at home," she adds. "I was hoping for this miraculous 'pulling it out at the last minute,' like in every sports movie. But no. It took a really, really bad turn."

The play creates a surrogate for Kokai named Allison, who interacts with people and puppets in a dramatized version of this actual scenario. That decision to employ puppetry had both a thematic and practical consideration. "Enough of the story seemed ridiculous already, that I really wanted to lean in and make it as theatrical as possible," Kokai says. "But to be honest, it's an efficient and inexpensive way to have a lot of characters."

Subsequent to that negative New York experience, Kokai found herself connecting with the Utah theater community, and was impressed with the way it celebrates stories with local specificity. "Life is different in any geographical location," she says. "They're really distinct places with their own histories to grapple with ... even things like word choice and sense of humor. There's a cynicism to a lot of New York plays that doesn't necessarily work in Utah. Let us find the writers and stories that our audiences connect to."

With this particular story, she's content if something that caused her pain and stress at the time turns into a story that provides amusement to audiences that might need it. "The world right now is very stressful," Kokai says. "So I did write this to be as comedic as possible. It really just fills me with joy. If nothing else, what I want people to take away from this are moments of silly joy."

ROBERT HOLMAN
  • Robert Holman

Flying
Pygmalion Theatre Co.
Rose Wagner Black Box Theater
138 W. 300 South
Feb. 14-29
$22.50
pygmalionproductions.org

There are many compelling stories about women facing a world that tells them what they can't do because of their gender. There's something uniquely compelling about a story where the women have already showed what they can do, and are then told they can't do it anymore.

Sheila Cowley's Flying dives into the historical story of the WASPs—Women Airforce Service Pilots—who flew 60 million miles worth of transport and other missions during World War II. The play centers on one such ex-WASP, Susan (Nicole Finney), who after the end of her service returns to civilian life trying to run the Midwest airfield operated by her still-absent husband.

For director Teresa Sanderson, Flying spoke to a fascinating era, and was thrilled to discover that a playwright was exploring it. "The WASP is a fairly unknown story," Sanderson says. "Anyone who's younger than we are probably hasn't even heard of them. These women weren't celebrated in any way [and] couldn't be buried in military cemeteries until 2001. I love aeronautics and the history of the war, so it spoke to me on every level."

In the process of preparing the play, Sanderson learned details that she hadn't known previously. While most of the WASP missions involved ferrying soldiers or material, some also assisted with training for fighter pilots, trailing targets that the male pilots would fire at with live ammunition. "[The fighters] often missed, and would shoot through the bottom of the plane, and wound the women in the feet," she says.

The character of Susan also provided a perfect personification of the struggles facing these WASP pilots as they rotated back to the lives they had before the war. "I don't think I ever realized how hard it was for them to go back to sweeping the floors and doing the dishes after having these huge adventures," Sanderson says. "I can't imagine the freedom of flying, then being told to forget that it happened."

While Sanderson acknowledges that there have been plenty of advances in opportunities for women in the years since—which can be demonstrated by a woman currently being commander at Hill Air Force Base, scheduled to be a guest at the talk-back session following Flying's Feb. 29 matinee performance—she notes that there's still a long way to go. That makes it even more important to celebrate the pioneers who broke barriers. "These were bad-ass women," Sanderson says. "They were brave and smart, and I just love to tell stories about them."

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