I was invited to review Fight Girl Battle World at Center Stage NY in New York City. I brought along Darrell Schweitzer: writer, editor, essayist in the field of speculative fiction, and Philadelphia resident curmudgeon. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Fight Girl Battle World Two‑headed Review
by Darrell Schweitzer & N.E. Lilly ©2008
Fight Girl Battle World was produced by the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company and created by co-artistic directors Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker. The fight choreography and writing were by Mr. Nguyen, and it was directed by Mr. Parker. Set in the far future Fight Girl Battle World is a story of the last two humans in the universe. During the Human Wars all but a few of the humans were hunted down and killed by General Da’h of the Galactic Alliance. The play begins as General Da’h discovers the last human female, E-V, posing as a fighter on Battle World, and he tracks her down.
DARRELL: The first thing I will say about Fight Girl Battle World is that you should go see it. It is a great deal of comic (in more senses than one), energetic fun. It should be of considerable interest to Browncoats, i.e. Firefly fans. Arguably this is Sci Fi rather than Science Fiction — i.e. the images and clichés of Science Fiction are assembled like glittery junk turned into collage art, as opposed to the content being arrived at by any sort of thoughtful speculation — but it’s done with knowing irony. I was particularly impressed by how the cheesy effects and primitive set (a single set, typical of small theatre) are turned to the play’s advantage by actually drawing the audience’s attention to them.
The “turn off your cell phones” message at the beginning is done by a guy behind a curtain with a toy Boba Fett and a tauntaun, an a manner that can only be described as “sub-puppetry,” so obviously fake (and projected by someone standing behind, holding a light bulb) that it draws laughs. This sets the tone, so that when we see a gaudy but unconvincing two-headed person, other puppets, space helmets which are obviously converted football or motorcycle helmets, an intergalactic communications device which is a portable fan with a TV antenna on it, etc. these are deliberately introduced in a way that is paced for laughs. It softens up the audience’s skepticism. We are ready to accept, imaginatively, anything, so that more standard bits of small-time stagecraft work. A circular opening in the wall because, variously, the screen of a newscast, the porthole of a spaceship, etc. People can jog in place or otherwise go through elaborate miming to travel between worlds. The stage medium is much less literal than a TV or movie screen, and the director has exploited the differences quite effectively.
So this is not like a live-action movie that can’t afford special effects. It is another creature entirely.
NATHAN: “Another creature entirely,” that sums it up.
When the tauntaun and Boba Fett action figures appeared I was frightened. The two Kenner action figures appeared in a film short telling people to turn of their cell phones in what seemed to be a childish, amateurish attempts at humor. I was frightened that this might’ve been the highlight of the show. If you’re familiar with Firefly: imagine the “This Land” speech that Wash gives (using toy dinosaurs) only without the same charm.
When I first saw the size of the stage I thought to myself, “There’s no way that they can do stage combat here. It’s way too small.” But I was very impressed — they used the space so effectively that you didn’t realize that the entire performance was enacted in a 8x10 area. The production really comes alive during the stage combat that verges on stage magic. Have you ever seen a cut-scene montage on stage? A Scooby-Doo-chase-scene-style combat scene in the Theater? If E-V had been sawn in half in the middle if the performance, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. No, wait, that’s a lie. I would have been surprised — but it wouldn’t have felt entirely out of place. They used various gimmicks that didn’t seem at all gimmicky. At various times throughout the performance it relied on puppets, shadow-puppets, multimedia projections, pantomime, Laugh-Inn-style heads popping out of the walls, and of course, stage combat. I’m sorry that I wasn’t more familiar with the Vampire Cowboy Theatre Company’s work before this. I would have liked to have compared this play to plays that they’ve produced previously. Fight Girl Battle World was quite unlike any other theater or stage combat that I’ve seen. How did they make that 8x10 stage feel, at various times, like a battle world arena, a desert planet, an apartment, a bathroom, the cockpit of a space-fighter, and the depths of space? Acting.
DARRELL: I wasn’t afraid at all. As soon as I saw the size of the theatre, even before I looked at the set very closely, I realized what they were going to have to do. The stage is a much less literal medium than film. Positive and negative space can reverse just because of where someone is standing, so inside becomes outside, and so on. Of course this has been true since the beginnings of theatre. An ancient Greek theatre had an upper and lower level and three doors at the top and that had to serve for all possible scenes. Shakespeare’s Globe had an open stage, a couple exits, and a little enclosure, plus some trapdoors. The set we saw, if painted to look like medieval stonework with a little ivy, could have served for Romeo & Juliet, with the enclosure on the left which served as spaceship/zoo cage/restroom, etc. being both the balcony and the tomb of the Capulets.
The eye just accepts things differently, at least that of a trained playgoer. I know people who would not have been able to understand what was happening when people seemed to be jogging in place, for instance. There was only one moment where I wasn’t sure if our heroes were all in the same spaceship or two different ones.
Likewise, we are perfectly willing to accept, on stage, that an actor in a green suit with a silver big-collar, funny goggles, and a blue wig is a robot, particularly since the actor in question (Paco Tolson) as LC-4 pulled it off so well. What we saw was an abstraction, which tells the mind “imagine a robot here” and the rest was how he spoke and moved. It took a lot more makeup to make Data convincing on Star Trek.
In many ways, it may be that Science Fiction is ideally suited for this kind of stage, because most of the aliens we see on the screen look remarkably like an actor in makeup, but the “imagine alien here” doesn’t work as well on film. We suspend disbelief quite differently for the stage. You know: the average Star Trek alien may be summed up as “a facial problem and an attitude.” Not very convincing, if you think about it.
About the performances: All of them were energetic and the right combination of deadpan fake-serious and comic. It is hard to name a standout. I heard one flubbed line. I won’t mention who. I am sure that won’t happen next time. Maureen Sebastian as J’an Jah had a particularly challenging role as the “male” of an alien species. The bathroom scene was quite priceless. I don’t know how many actresses ever get a chance to do that on stage...
None of the characterizations are deep, of course. We are more amused than moved by any of this. “Live action comic book” is a pretty fair description, but not an insulting one. It’s a good live action comic book.
Oh, as to the Boba Fett and tauntaun thing, the whole essence of comedy is timing, and the essence of timing is knowing when to stop. A “look how cheesy this is” gag only works once and only for a couple minutes. If the whole play had been like that, we would have gotten bored in 5 minutes. But it wasn’t and we weren’t. The audience (mostly young) seemed quite appreciative. Even old pharts like us were quite carried along.
NATHAN: I suppose the fear was more about the impending stage combat. I didn’t want to see any of the actors tumbling off into the audience.
There were more than a few influences from popular culture Science Fiction: namely comic books (as you’ve mentioned), animé, cartoons, and media. It was a little bit of everything, and not too much of any one thing. It took cues from animé, but was distinctly American. It took cues from classic Space Opera, but was thoroughly modern. It took cues from comic books, but wasn’t over-powered by the four-color atmosphere. It was a fine balancing act by the playwright — and it could have easily become unbalanced. I can say that it was fun, without being silly.
I understand your problem with naming a standout. I thought all of the performances were very good. I certainly thought that Maureen Sebastian gave a wonderful performance as J’an Jah. Her character seemed to be the one most well drawn, and with the most internal conflict in the story. Each of the other actors had their moments, but I felt that she gave a strong confident performance throughout the play in what was basically a supporting role. In the playbill it mentions that she had previously played Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s a role in which I would have loved to have seen her in.
Temar Underwood and Paco Tolson gave a good solid performances as General Dan’h and LC-4, the last robot playwright. Noshir Dalal as Adon Ra, space terrorist, even had a few tender moments that kept the character as real as a space terrorist who is assassinating aliens across the galaxy can be. Melissa Paladino as E-V performed well enough in a role that demanded her to be such a central figure. What I remember most about the character of President Ya-Wi, after the role was assumed by Jon Hoche, was his crazy eyes; he was a vengeful President. The fact that Andrea Marie Smith performed Commander G’Bril as a parallel to Dr. Hämsterviel from Lilo and Stitch, didn’t detract from her performance. There were many “bit” parts that enhanced and supported the overall performance of the piece; Too many to mention, other than to say that without them the play would have been flat. It would have been easy to let the characters become caricatures. But, even for the puppets, each character had their own voice.
DARRELL: Maybe it is unfair to discuss this as actual Science Fiction rather than Sci Fi. There were no original ideas here, or really any ideas taken at all seriously. Which is good, because the comic/frenetic tone of the piece demands that. Clichés are used for laughs, knowingly. The ending builds up to one of the biggest clichés of all time — I will not be a spoiler and reveal it, just say that it is one of the ones with Science Fiction magazine editors have been reading in the slush pile for a good fifty years now — and, fortunately, tosses it off as a joke. Otherwise, the science-fictional concepts, galactic federations, alien species interbreeding, gladiatorialism on sleazy backwater worlds, heroic space rebels, the comic robot, are all very familiar, part of an accepted language with which the audience is presumably already familiar. But as I said before, this is almost like collage art, something fresh and new made out of shiny bits of junk.
NATHAN: I don’t want to turn this into a Sci Fi vs. Science Fiction debate. This story could only have been written without the Science Fiction setting with great difficulty without drastically changing the story, regardless of how much science content it contained. There just seems to be a running thread that if something isn’t “serious” you can’t call it Science Fiction. That if it borrows an idea from Science Fiction that has been done to death, that it can’t be resurrected. Not one of William Shakespeare’s play stemmed from an original thought. They were all based on myths, and histories, and (sometimes) current events. We’re still making television shows, movies, and plays based on the Greek myths. We both know that there are no new ideas, only new combinations of the old ones.
DARRELL: The puppetry. Well the puppet at the end was someone’s arm. The galactic president puppet looked like a Muppet. Again, the self-aware, almost self-parodying tone made this all come together. It would not have worked in serious drama. This sort of thing harkens all the way back to the toy Boba Fett and tauntaun shut-off-your-cell-phone message. They’ve turned a weakness into a strength. If you can’t make it look real, make it look unreal, call attention to its very unreality, and make a joke out of it. Very effective.
NATHAN: I enjoyed the puppetry. Although the puppets weren’t ultra-realistic, they were still relatively well crafted. The Jim Henson company doesn’t need to be watching their back, but they did well within their means. I have to call attention here to the use of the puppets by the puppeteers. At one point in the story E-V and J’an were riding a large beast on a desert planet. The beast looked to be little more that an orange rug with metal wires sticking out as antennae, but once it began moving it became alive. It moved very much like I imagine a large beast of burden would.
DARRELL: The staging was conventional in a way. A small, abstract set which serves many purposes, lots of quick exits and entrances, including some using the very door the audience came in through. This is what you expect in small theatre. These people are obviously pros and know how to do it. I was impressed by the way the actors moved and mimed within this limited set, so that, within the enclosure which had variously be a control room, cage, bathroom etc. inside suddenly becomes outside and an actor with his eyes bugging out, moving just so becomes a corpse floating in space.
NATHAN: I felt the staging was anything but conventional, for theater. By integrating the black frame on stage left they were able to achieve special effects that they would not have been able to do otherwise. It actually turned the actors into human puppets. Adding a second black frame on stage right during the climax they achieved three stages in one. It allowed them to use a convention found in comic books and animé: that of showing multiple points of view in a single scene, and multiple scenes at the same time. It worked really well.
DARRELL: Favorite scenes. The bathroom scene, because we have trashy minds. But it was quite funny. The scene in which the last man and last woman meet for the first time and try to discuss sex. There is some good “low” humor here, not enough to become dominant, but put in for pacing. Otherwise it is hard to say. One fast-moving fight or chase scene blends with another. The whole is better than any of the parts.
NATHAN: I think I agree on every point. Given that this is the last man and the last woman it’s inevitable that the discussion eventually turns to sex. I enjoyed the final fight scene between E-V and Ya-Wi. The bathroom scene, which actually was just a smaller piece of a larger montage. LC-4’s introduction scene in the zoo was pretty good as well. I didn’t feel that they escaped simply because the plot demanded it.
DARRELL: The writing was very good for what it was. The plot moves. The dialogue and situations are witty. The playwright, along with the director, clearly understood the medium and turned the limitations of the stage into assets, using the very artificiality of the whole thing as a distancing device.
NATHAN: I agree. The production is one that everyone involved should be proud to be a part of. We drove two and a half hours into New York, fought New York Traffic, paid an exorbitant fee for parking, and even if I had paid the nominal fee for the tickets: the trip still would have been worth it. As we were leaving you mentioned that the play is technically eligible for a Hugo, but that it wouldn’t be likely to win because it wouldn’t have the exposure it would need to win votes. I say that’s a shame. This show is what Science Fiction (and entertainment in general) is meant to be: fun. I would actually like to see it again. If they provided a DVD copy of the performance, I would have purchased a copy.
DARRELL: Yes, people should go see this. Now. While it is still around. You never know if a show like this will ever be seen again. It would be hard to imagine it as a movie. The film version would be so different as not to be the same at all. When you saw, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the stage as opposed to on film, it was pretty much the same. This would not be. The play is a unique experience unlikely to be repeated.
Fight Girl Battle World will be playing March 6th thru March 30th, 2008 at Center Stage, NY. Ticket information can be found at the Vampire Cowboys website.
Darrell Schweitzer has been publishing fantastic fiction since the early 1970s. His books include three novels, The White Isle, The Shattered Goddess, and The Mask of the Sorcerer, plus seven short-story collections. His work, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in publications as varied as Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, Twilight Zone, Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post, and SCI FI Entertainment. He is a respected critic, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Science Fiction, and is the author of books about H.P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany. He has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award three times, twice for Best Collection and once for Best Novella, and won it once as one of the editors of Weird Tales magazine, a position he has held since 1987. He denies that he is best-known for having rhymed “Cthulhu” in a limerick.
N.E. Lilly is the editor of SpaceWesterns.com. When he isn’t reading submissions or indulging his love of the Space Western sub-genre, he’s developing websites for Science Fiction professionals and organizations through GreenTentacles.