Hollywood Fringe 2016
Forgotten war heroines get overdue tribute.
In World War two, Russia had a secret weapon helping to stop the Nazi advance on the Eastern Front, an elite regiment of female pilots, Night Bomber Regiment 588. If the Cold War hadn’t happened, this story would surely have been a Hollywood movie.
Will McMichael’s play has a cinematic feel, the scenes are all pretty short, some without any dialogue, and there are action sequences with planes, underscored with rock music.
Devin Sidell plays the charismatic Manna, a decorated pilot tasked by Stalin to command a new all-female regiment. The girls under her command are young and rural, and unprepared for the realities of war. Heather Schmidt is Nina, a farm girl and amateur pilot who is the innocent through whom we meet the other girls. This is a very strong female ensemble with some doubling (life expectancy was short so there is some churn to the regiment’s membership). Manna disappears from the story to fulfill (presumably historically accurate) duties elsewhere and the command is passed on to Yev (Jaime Andrews) who brings a welcome maternalism to the unit.
The men have less opportunities to endear themselves, playing a variety of soldiers in a variety of accents, but it all stays on the right side of caricature. Curt Bonnem is particularly effective in his three distinct parts.
There is a love story thread for Nina and Ivan (Michael Holmes), a injured Russian soldier whom she helps nurse back to health until he is posted elsewhere, allowing for some voice-over letter-reading.
The dense story is efficiently told in this 75 minute piece but the speed of the telling and ensemble nature of the show means that some of the smaller characters seem under-developed, sacrificed on the altar of plot, it is a credit to the cast that even a two-or-three line part is made to count.
Given the size of the cast and the number of scene-changes the show would certainly have benefited from having a bit more space, and the limited lighting rig did not do justice to the plane puppetry but overall a lot is achieved with a little.
Will McMichael directs his own play with efficiency and pace. The previously unmentioned Julia Griswold, CJ Merriman, Mandi Moss, Rowan Hall, Kara Emry, Josh Weber and Travis York, all do excellent work, York being particularly touching as Nina’s father.
Night Witches is a gentle history lesson and a long overdue tribute to these war heroines.