Sunday, November 27, 2022

Love in the time of space fighting: ‘Fight Girl Battle World’ opens at UNCW

Kezia Dunham as J’an Jah and Elizabeth Montgomery as E-V in “Fight Girl Battle World” (Brenna Flanagan/PCD).

WILMINGTON — If there was one word the cast would use to describe UNCW’s production of “Fight Girl Battle World,” it would be: badass. 

The show, which opened Thursday night on UNCW’s main stage in its Cultural Arts Building, is a departure from the heavy material of the department’s recent productions, such as “Kindertransport.” It takes the audience through a galactic odyssey chock-full of sight gags, comedic quips, and hand-to-hand combat. 

The play, written by Qui Nguyen (Netflix’s “The Society,” Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon”), transports the audience to a galaxy far, far away. There we meet E-V (Elizabeth Montgomery) maintaining her survival as one of the last living humans as a prizefighter under contract with two-headed reptile manager Zimlek (Trip Cameron).

Interrupting life as she knows it is General Dan’h (Khori Talley) who, having aided the near-extinction of humanity, now regrets his actions and hopes to pair together the last remaining humans to revive their species. Assisting in this endeavor, albeit with a conflict of interest, is chief officer J’an Jah (English exchange student Kezia Dunham).

One problem: E-V’s mate is insurgency leader Adon-Ra (Zach Harris) exacting revenge on alien leaders for the destruction of his race. 

Well, actually E-V has many problems, including evading capture from a band of villains, such as opposition leader President Ya-Wi, a masterminding puppet (Malik Fowler).

With such an expansive story to tell, Elizabeth Wellman is making a grand entrance with her UNCW directorial debut.

“I think it is a challenge to stage a show with this many moving parts,” she said. “There’s puppets. There’s a ton of fight choreography. There are multiple giant set pieces and there’s a lot of complex lighting and sound cues. And some surprises.” 

With over 20 cast members to also contend for, the audience gets to meet a new person and learn more about the show’s universe throughout the play. Even the minor roles get their moment to shine, according to Kaitlyn Simmons, who plays fighter pilot Leader One. 

Kevin Vernon as Gree Gree, Elizabeth Montgomery as E-V, Lilly Ferguson as Zookeeper and Tanner Batts as LC-4 in “Fight Girl Battle World.” (Brenna Flanagan, PCD).

While not a spoof, Nguyen makes it clear “Fight Girl Battle World” is inspired by the most beloved of sci-fi movies: “Star Wars.”

Cast members also drew on the George Lucas megaverse to aid in character-building. 

“When I’m embracing the physicality of the character, I feel like Han Solo,” Harris said.

The play also moves beyond its predecessors, not just in humor. It uses its alien-being premise to explore beyond traditional gender conceptions. Dunham’s J’an Jah, while she presents as a human female like E-V, is actually the male of his species. 

“They have a really an interesting relationship with E-V because they kind of see E-V as a threat,” Dunham said. “You also can’t quite hold them down into any box — they’re just a bit of everything.” 

Another way the cast connected with their characters is through the play’s stage combat, something uncommon in UNCW’s past productions. Fight choreographers Chase Whitehurst and Kira Cornell were brought in to stage the scenes. 

Montgomery said it wasn’t until she learned the motion of battle that she felt she fully embodied E-V. 

“Getting to move in that kind of way, I just felt so empowered,” Montgomery said. “The character is very empowering, too, because she’s just the coolest, just badass.”

Zach Harris as Adon-Ra and Elizabeth Montgomery as E-V. (Brenna Flanagan, PCD).

Nguyen is known for his fight and movement scenes, yet gives a lot of creative leeway to directors. 

“He presents these incredible, exciting challenges to directors, but he does not tell you how to solve those problems,” Wellman said. “And I love that because it’s just a push.” 

Aside from her role, Simmons was also the fight captain of the show. 

“We went based on the script, right, but our choreographers were able to kind of bring their own spin and interpretation alongside the text,” Simmons said.

Wellman noted the importance of working with fight choreographers, along with the work of the technical crew, to bring the action sequences to life safely. The actors were trained to aim far from their targets, yet clever direction and use of noise and sound effects make the hits seem real. 

The costuming also elevates the show, designed by UNCW’s professor Mark Sorensen. He was tasked with exemplifying otherworldly elements in the show’s alien costumes, but had to create multiple puppets as well. 

Malik Fowler as President Ya-Wi. (Brenna Flanagan, PCD).

Voicing puppet President Ya-Wi, Fowler said he honed in on the character’s “perfectionist” and “short-tempered” attitude. It offers some of the funniest moments in the show. 

“I would just basically take all of his personality traits and think of the best voice to manifest itself,” Fowler said. “Sometimes, with the way that he presents himself, he doesn’t get taken seriously, and that’s why it kind of ticks him off, but it gets funny to see him frustrated.” 

Despite the numerous humorous and fantastical components of the play, there is also emotional depth to the story. The audience, especially college-aged viewers grappling with the social effects of Covid-19 will be able to resonate with the play’s more serious themes. 

“This play is on its surface a comedy, which I think we all are in the mood to laugh,” Wellman said. “But I think what has attracted me to this script is the sense [of] finding connection in a world that tells you you’re alone.”

Zach Harris as Adon-Ra and Elizabeth Montgomery as E-V. (Brenna Flanagan, PCD).

Harris described Adon-Ra as “on his own in this big universe.” Montgomery said E-V has “never experienced what it’s like to have family, friends, any type of relationship that’s a positive one.” 

The play also presents its own creation narrative with biblical parallels, while examining humanity’s capacity for creation and destruction. It broaches choices humans make in search of connection — or in Wellman’s words, “the awkwardness and pain of trying to reconnect.”

What better way to do that than within a joke-filled space Western?


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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