The election is over, but a combative spirit still rages in two new plays about strong, determined women who pick fights with the patriarchal status quo.
On view in a world premiere from WSC Avant Bard, Jonelle Walker’s vivid, artfully unnerving “TAME.” is a retort to Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Set in 1960s Texas, the drama centers on Cat (Jill Tighe), a young lesbian poet who returns home after the suicide of her lover. Grieving and furious, Cat scandalizes and terrorizes her devout Christian parents and sister, prompting the family to seek help from a minister named Patrick (Brendan Edward Kennedy), who engages Cat in counseling sessions that turn emotionally and physically brutal.
Ingeniously crafted, right up to its shocker ending, “TAME.” echoes Shakespeare while also depicting distinctive characters locked in a psychologically plausible battle of modern values and ideas. (Eric McMorris designed the shotgun-house set, and Danielle Preston, the period costumes; Danny Cackley choreographed the fights, which look a tad stagy at present.) Walker doesn’t oversimplify that battle: Patrick — who turns out to have his own dark side — and Cat often behave in startling ways that remind us that people can be complicated, inconsistent and contrarian.
The acting in Angela Kay Pirko’s well-paced production doesn’t entirely rise to the level of the script. Most noticeably, Tighe’s operatically seething, sullen Cat seems, in early scenes, to inhabit a different universe from her chirpy mother (Karen Lange) and demure sister Bea (Madeline Burrows): The characterizations adhere to different scales, and the interpersonal give-and-take doesn’t ring true. But later scenes display more connectedness. And John Stange contributes valuably in the role of Cat’s brooding father, who has a grudging bond with his reprobate daughter.
The performances are stronger in “Girl in the Red Corner,” Stephen Spotswood’s bracing, if occasionally schematic, new drama. The first production to emerge from the second generation of the Welders Playwrights’ Collective, “Girl in the Red Corner” follows a disadvantaged young woman named Halo, who finds empowerment in mixed martial arts.
Director Amber Paige McGinnis’s intense and visually striking production unfurls on an evocation of an octagonal fighting cage. (Debra Kim Sivigny designed the set and props.) The conceit emphasizes the ground-and-pound socioeconomic pressures affecting Halo (Audrey Bertaux, aptly haunted), who has a checkered job history and lives with her underemployed mother (Lisa Hodsoll). The odds seem fairer at the local gym, where Halo begins studying mixed martial arts with Gina (channeled with marvelous surly focus by Maggie Donnelly, the cast standout).
Spotswood spells out his character’s motivations too tidily, but the production is very enjoyable when it dwells on the wary-but-warming rapport between Halo and Gina. (Cliff Williams III directed the show’s creditable fight sequences.) A zinger of a scene depicts a practice-sparring session between the two women, who stay energized by mockingly chanting the kind of patronizing, reproving or insidiously belittling phrases that society often uses to keep women in line.
“You’re being emotional.” “Don’t be so sensitive.” “Resting bitch face.” Each insulting cliche prompts a blow. When the crowning outrage — “Don’t forget to f-----g smile!” — propels a decisive hook punch, the impact feels more than a little cathartic.
TAME., by Jonelle Walker. Directed by Angela Kay Pirko; lighting design, E-hui Woo; sound, Mehdi Raoufi; props, Becky Mezzanotte. About two hours. Tickets: pay-what-you-can-$35. Through Dec. 11 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Visit wscavantbard.org or call 703-418-4808.
Girl in the Red Corner, by Stephen Spotswood. Directed by Amber Paige McGinnis; sound design, Chris Baine; lighting, Laura J. Eckelman; costumes, Erik Teague; fight consultant, Jay Ferrari. With Jennifer J. Hopkins and Nicklas Aliff. About two hours. Tickets: $15-$30. Through Nov. 20 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington, D.C. Visit atlasarts.org or call 202-399-7993.