"Censored on Final Approach" crashes
A playwright needs several things to create a work that has meaning: a story that is important or memorable or captures the imagination, and words that tell the story and create characters who are genuine and about whom we care.
Remembering these simple facts lets us take a look at the ponderous and obvious production of "Censored on Final Approach," the Phylis Ravel play that has just opened at Renaissance Theaterworks.
The first thing we need is the story, and this one is a clearly powerful story.
During World War II, a group of women was hired to form a small force of female pilots who would fly all kinds of planes in all kinds of missions, freeing the male pilots for combat. The women were not part of the military, retaining civilian status, but were subject to the orders of military commanders.
Right off the bat, we've got a good story staring us in the face. Females breaking barriers into what had previously been an all-male area of work. The dangers of flying coupled with the discrimination any trailblazer faces. The struggle for empowerment. Women who were driven to shed the bonds of earthbound "duty" and prowl the skies, the power of a flying machine in their hands.
So, we have a good story. Now, what do we need for characters.
Well, first of all we need pilots. Let's make one a rigid rich girl and another one a naive farm girl. Let's add a sophisticated tart and a child of the military who knows what it means to be a soldier or airman. (Check. We've got them all.)
Then we need the enemy (not the Japanese). We have a woman who leads the program who is torn between loyalty to her flying corps and the higher-ups in the military who must give permission for the girls to fly. (Check. The wonderful and accomplished Greta Wohlrabe.)
Then, of course, we need a commanding officer of the base who is almost beside himself in rigid opposition to having women around and flying planes. (Check. The also wonderful and accomplished James Fletcher.)
Then we need someone who wants the women for what men apparently always want women for, an officer with authority over the girls who uses it to try and get laid, thereby symbolizing the ways men with power have always used it over women. (Check. Daniel Callahan.)
And we also need a bunch of other men: a baby-faced soldier who would love nothing more than to date a female pilot and who tries to become a man by firing artillery, a couple of other miscellaneous soldiers and the sympathetic black mechanic who knows the truth but is caught in the middle of his basic instinct for truth and his basic instinct for survival. (Check to all.)
The setup is there and we are ready to put this puppy on the stage. Finally, you need a director and you get one in Leda Hoffmann, one of the brightest young female directors in the city and one who has a nice string of outstanding productions under her wing.
We have it all.
But I found myself wondering, about 15 minutes into this two-and-a-half-hour piece, where it all went wrong.
The problem, it soon became obvious, was that none of these characters on the stage ever seemed to become real people. Instead they all seemed like cardboard cutouts of people who we expected would be on stage. Instead of characters we got caricatures.
Ravel was the distinguished and beloved director of the Marquette University theater arts program until her untimely death in 2012. The thing she left out of this play were the words that would give these characters dimension. Words that would help us to believe they were real people rather than cutouts of just the kind of characters you would expect to find and just the kind of events that give us no surprises.
She gave us women who were angry at how they were treated and men who were smug and overbearing. We had women who thought flying a plane was akin to sexual excitement and women who were ashamed to hear a friend stay that.
We have deaths in crashes, which are attributed to pilot error even though some of the flygirls know the reports were censored in order not to blame faulty or sabotaged planes.
What's especially disappointing about this play is that Renaissance is normally a sure thing for memorable and important productions. But, as they say, "the play's the thing."
Everyone involved with the play strove mightily to lift this play into the skies. But instead of being "Censored on Final Approach," it should have been grounded before takeoff.
"Censored on Final Approach" runs through April 24 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
Production credits: Director, Leda Hoffmann; Stage Manager, Brandy Kline: Lighting Designer, Chester Loeffler-Bell; Props Designer, Kevin M. Grab; Sound Designer, Victoria Delorio; Costume Designer, Debra Krajec; Scenic Designer, Stephen Hudson-Mairet; Dramaturg, Jake Voss; Fight Choreographer, James Fletcher; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons.
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