Dallas — Theatre Three’s artistic director, Jeffrey Schmidt, had every reason to beam on opening night. The theatre’s main stage production, The Armor Plays: Cinched and Strapped by Selina Fillinger, is terrific. Director Leslie Swackhamer has wisely entrusted Christie Vela, James Crawford, Ania Lyons, Ana Hagedorn, Sophie Neff and Seth Magill with the characters in these two one-act plays about women’s struggles to survive in patriarchal societies. The actors are each playing two characters, one per play.
The heavy female presence in this production does not go unnoticed. In addition to the director, there are the production assistants (Emily Ann Probus and Charlotte McGaughy), the assistant director (Emily Neves), the stage manager (Michelle Foster), scenic designer (Jocelyn Girigorie), sound designer (Madeleine Morris), animation (Sid Curtis) and voice and text direction (Krista Scott). Having noticed this made watching their boss crew switch out polar-opposite sets during intermission more interesting, and fueled curiosities about what was coming next.
Fillinger initially wrote these as two acts of one play. Now separated, she acknowledges that each can stand alone but she intends them as sister plays. Cinched is set in the Victorian era during the Industrial Revolution; Strapped is in a dystopian future.
The occasion in Cinched is a dinner party in the home of the widowed Lady Glessing (Christie Vela). Of all of the production elements, costumes, as the play titles suggest, are most imbued with symbolism. Cinched is costumed by Jeremy Bernadoni, Strapped by Aaron Patrick DeClerk. We enter the boudoir of just as the maid, Tabitha (Ana Hagedorn) is lacing the Lady’s corset.
Glessing is expecting Lord Burrows (James Crawford) to join her for dinner. She finds that Burrows has brought along his pretty teen ward, Lady Ada (Ania Lyons) as well. Lord Witherton (Seth Magill) and his wife Lady Witherton (Sophie Neff) round out the guest list. Dinner goes horribly and uproariously wrong.
The women in Strapped are part of an underground resistance movement led by Arb (Vela). Igg (Hagedorn) and Goo (Neff) are the most experienced on her team. These women are hunted because they dared to resist and question male patriarchal decision-making and control over women’s bodies. Tot (Lyons) works undercover. Fight Captain (Magill) is a late addition to the group, risking his life to join their cause. Representing the predator class is Ved (Crawford).
Vela’s acting agility cinches these stories together as reliably as the corsets her characters wear. Glessing and Arb are well-drawn, and Vela makes them clearer without force or overplay. Through all of the hilarity in Cinched, the cruel uncertainty of these women’s lives is not sacrificed. Hagedorn has the job of being something of an outspoken lieutenant for Vela’s characters. She is compelling as the everywoman, especially as working-class Tabitha.
Jim Crawford is really funny in Cinched but in Strapped succeeds at reluctant resoluteness, especially his poignant scenes with Vela.
More than any of the other story lines, those of Lady Ada and Tot spear through both tales into the reality of today. Lyons presents both characters as fresh, honest and unexpectedly daring, arguing and if necessary, fighting for power over their bodies. Neff and Magill play the unlikeliest characters to be catalytic.
Swackhamer is the executive director for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize organization, which awards a woman playwright with a $25,000 prize each year (recent winners include Jackie Sibblies Drury, Alice Birch, and Lynn Nottage). She talked with Schmidt about the trend she is observing among new women playwrights since the 2016 election in that they are delving into “the world as they see it and how we need to change it.”
This production of Fillinger’s contribution to that overarching conversation is aesthetically and structurally bold and enduring. It’s a winning close to Theatre Three’s 2018-2019 season.