Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
1. Read famous things.
Pear Theatre is presenting the funny, yet deadly serious world premiere production of James Kopp's Girls Kill Nazis, set in some not-too-distant future. In yet another close presidential election decided (yet again) in the final count by Florida, the successors of the former alt-right movement, the American Nazi Party, has won. And while every day there are public, televised announcements (generously paid for by the Evangelical Nazi Church of America) urging citizens to blow the whistles around their necks if they see any Mexicans, Muslims, or "Negroes" (especially when there are more than two of them and after dark), four women of Bisbee are not paying attention to such nonsense. They remain steadily undeterred in their club's mission. They discuss books by Harper Lee or George Orwell, and they Ninja-style attack and stab any Nazi who wanders into the libraryespecially if he is a loud-mouthing misogynist who dares call them "girls" or "bitches." Oh, and then they cut off his head, put it in a jar, and add it to the growing collection of twenty-plus already hidden behind the stacks in the library.
Ruth is the library's manager and unchallenged leader of the group (as in, she who has killed the most Nazis, leads). She has been inspired by not only the club's namesake but by the many Russian women who were notorious as snipers in WWII, including Lyudmila Mikhailovna (or "Lady Death") who had 309 confirmed kills of German Nazis. Ruth runs a welcoming, friendly library for the small town with an air of efficiency and no-nonsense. She also leads the book club in the same way, patiently trying to keep the discussions on track, urging members to be open to listening to different opinions, and nonchalantly and politely suggesting they get back to the night's book talk after the latest bloody kill is done. Stephanie Crowley is a Betty with nerves of steel, as seen in a mouth that remains tightly pursed and eyes that reveal nothing when the latest Nazi arrives. She is also one who can suddenly transform into a ferocious warrior when the moment of truth arrives.
Her cohorts are the normal group that one might find in any town's book clubwell, maybe not exactly like others, but close. Diana (Heather Mae Steffen) is a yoga instructor who does not bother to re-read the books she once read in college and whose overall chill-out, mild manner hides her even calmer instinct to kill a Nazi. As she stretches while still sitting in the group's semi-circle, she casually relates that after her first kill, she rushed home to take a stew out of the crockpot in time for dinner.
Betty likes to cook, too, and has been a proud homemaker with now two, grown sons. She arrives every week dressed in her favorite pink outfit of skirt, sweater, and neck bow, looking like she is on her way to an afternoon garden club gathering. She always reads every book and likesno loveseach one. Diane Tasca is both lovable and laughable as the always smiling, slightly out-to-lunch Betty. But her Betty has a secret, too, one she tells while looking just a little embarrassedone involving lemon bars laced with cyanide.
Rounding out the core group is the one member who looks more like the part of an actual subversive resister. Jennifer Sorkin-Kopp is Sidney, library assistant to Ruth who defiantly struts around wearing a half sneer and a jean jacket covered in protest buttons. She too has killed her Nazi and is impatient at first with the more steady-handed approach of Ruth, but she soon learns she has much to learn from her boss and now also undisputed leader of the book club.
This tight little group finds its membership invaded by a soft-spoken, elderly man named Bob, who has signed up as an attendee on a list the group did not mean to make public. He has come to talk about all the books he has seen but never read. Fortunately for him, the club's chosen books have mostly been also made into movies, allowing Bob to interject such evaluations as "That is a wonderfully acted book."
While the women are worried and skeptical at first, Bob understands his role after the discussion of "To Kill a Mockingbird." In that book, he learns that there is the villain, the victim, and the townspeople who forgive the victim when he kills the villain (because it was the right thing to do). Bob immediately understands his role is as the "townsperson" who has no trouble watchingand maybe even aidingthe group's number two purpose for being.
As Bob, Jim Johnson comes close to taking a rather small part and running away with the entire show. His cute self-deprecating gazes at the floor when he talks; his hand gestures used to act his out-of-the-blue quotes of his heroine, Maya Angelou; and his shuffling feet that still move with spirit and spunk make Mr. Johnson's Bob an addition welcomed by the group and the audience alike.
And then there are the Nazis; the Pear Theatre cast has ones that are easy to hate. Playwright James Koppwho also has designed the cozy, inviting library setting as well as the lighting and the sound of the productionplays a Nazi who loses his head because he demands "Harry Potter" come off the library's shelves (while also making the mistake of sneering to the women, "We have a president who's not going to take it anymore from bitches like you."). As soon as he bursts into the library, John Morrison looks ugly-mean and ready for his head to roll as Buck, a long-bearded, rough-talking, gun-toting Nazi who has just arrived in town along with Tina (Maria Costello), a more polite version of the Nazi sortuntil she isn't. Finally, Keith Larson is a smooth-talking, handsome Nazi and "voice of the nation" who addresses his "gentle listeners" before giving the day's whistle-blowing precautions against anyone who is not white.
James Kopp's scriptwhile at times still showing need of editing of the more mundane and near-preachy parts that especially are given to Ruth to deliveris overall brilliant for its off-the-cuff humor that can be subtle and gentle before turning pointed and biting. While often the well-conceived direction of John Morrison vacillates between the feel of a sitcom, a B-action film, or even animated cartoon, there is an overall thread of serious respect given to these women (and Bob) by both playwright and director. They at times resemble quirky characters from one of the library's sci-fi or fantasy books. But in this entertaining and thought-provoking Pear Theatre, world premiere production of Girls Kill Nazis, Betty, Sidney, Ruth, Diana, and Bob also unabashedly make the point that active, bold resistance is a heroic act for citizens who choose to be up-standers rather than bystanders in times of national, moral crisis.
Girls Kill Nazis, through December 2, 2018, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.