"We are weightless and unbound by gravity ..."
Flight, conceived and directed by Steve Pearson and written by Robyn Hunt, is not an easy play. To start with, it is an historical drama exploring a subject about which little history has been written. Its fictional characters, who lived lives split between the theatrical stage and the aviation hangar, are based loosely on actual female aviation pioneers whose lives were similarly fragmented. Add to this a deep thematic attachment to the work of Anton Chekov, and top it with a singular character whose place in time and space is hard to peg, and the result is nothing less than a study in complexity. But bear with the play’s construct, lean into its sometimes surprising interludes into dance and theatrics, stay with the play, and, ultimately, the viewer is delivered a simple and straightforward message, which is this: Though women are remembered too often for the performative work they do, (and there is a performative nature to far too much of the work of women), it is the unlauded milestones women have made—the ones accomplished when they were not being watched, critiqued, or directed—that have produced the greatest resonance, not just for the individual women themselves, but for humanity writ large.
A production of the University of SC Department of Theatre and Dance, Flight is making its second appearance in Columbia. First presented in 2009 by department professors Pearson and Hunt, Flight took wing on a national tour during which its script was tightened and refined by the playwright Hunt. It returns to Columbia this month with some of the original cast who also served as original researchers into the history and culture of women in aviation upon which the play is based.
The story of two French actress/aviators and a similarly ground-breaking woman documentarian, Flight takes the audience into an airline hangar in which the women appear to be constructing a plane in preparation for a trailblazing flight from Paris to Moscow. In fact, over the course of the play, the actors actually (re)assemble a ¾ scale replica of an early monoplane called the Bleriot XI, (previously hand-fashioned by Pearson). Always in motion, Madeleine, played by Gabriela Castillo, and Sophie, played by Kimberly Gaughan, create strong supporting roles for one another as their characters are juxtaposed in disposition and delivery, with Gaughan as intensely restrained—think tempered drama just below the surface of her character’s personality—as Castillo is light and optimistic. These women require no sympathy, despite the unaccommodating culture in which they work and live. They are empowered by their own dignity and dedication to their science. Gaughan and Castillo do their characters ample justice and should be proud of their work.
As the documentarian Alisse, playwright Hunt lends a diligent gentility to her character—so composed, so professional in the face of adversity—and her blending of the kind of maturity one can only admire with her easy manipulation of the stage, floating in and out of the machinations of filmmaking and the cultural machinations of womanhood are deliberate and nuanced.
Eric Bultman plays the part of the oft aloft Jean Luc, a prescient and somewhat ethereal combination of mystic and mechanic who seems to represent not only science but a more benevolent patriarchy than the one in which the women operate, offering a fluid form of interactive narration that has a grounding effect for the audience. Bultman is inordinately well-suited for the authoritative presence his character demands and, particularly in his tango with Hunt, which seems to so beautifully marry science to art, exhibits an easy command of the stage.
In the role of Gerard, a good-natured compatriot of the women from the theatre, Nicolas Stewart faces challenges in displaying a sense of comfort with his character’s physical form, lacking variability from the easy-going persona to which he so frequently returns. Still, there is much to look forward to in this young actor’s future.
The gradual materialization of an almost full-sized airplane on the stage aside, the rest of the set, also created by Pearson, is sparse but strong, exhibiting a captivating design element in its color and texture. Even more engaging is the costuming of the characters, designed by Lisa Martin-Stuart and Kristy Hall, which makes no apparent concessions to convenience or cost in the adherence to authenticity. It is satisfying to see period costuming so thoroughly implemented with no tell-tale signs of the 21st century sneaking out from around the edges. A light and lovely score accompanies the play’s progress.
It is cliché to say that Flight reminds us of how far we have come yet how far we still need to go, but it must be said. These powerful characters leave us with the optimistic words that we, as women, are weightless and unbound by gravity. But until we transcend, or at a minimum reconfigure, the performance of womanhood as culture demands it, we may never fully get off the ground.
Flight is at the Center for Performance Experiment and runs through April 29th.
Cindi Boiter is the executive director of the Jasper Project and editor of Jasper Magazine.