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Molly Powell and Lael Logan in
The Female Terrorist Project
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
"Counter-terrorism experts offer this advice: Shoot the women first," says a character in Ken Urban's The Female Terrorist Project. Supposedly, this is because women are quicker to act, can endure a higher level of pain than men, and are more likely to value the needs of the group over the individual. Urban's play is full of interesting ideas, fascinating true-to-life stories, and darkly humorous passages but is bogged down by uneven direction and an increasingly melodramatic plot.

Amelia (Molly Powell), a historian, is doing research on prominent female terrorists. Among her subjects are Leila Khaled (Marianna Newhard), who hijacked a plane in 1969 to bring attention to the cause of Palestinian liberation; Kim Hyon Hui (Lael Logan), a North Korean espionage agent who planted a bomb that destroyed a South Korean airliner in 1987; Shelley Shannon (Alison Weller), an anti-abortionist responsible for torching several women's clinics and shooting Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas in 1993; Tahana Titi (Zina Camblin), a Muslim woman who attempted a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2002; and Zarema (Nicole Godino), a widow involved in the takeover of a Moscow theater in 2002. All of these women exist in real life with the exception of Zarema, who is a composite character based on the lives of several female Chechen rebels.

Urban's play goes back and forth between scenes from Amelia's historical chronicle of female terrorists and Amelia's own story, which takes place in a dystopian near future that is, sadly, very easy to imagine. In it, America is fighting yet another war; bombings, terror alerts, and kidnappings are increasingly common. The subject of Amelia's research has raised some red flags among U.S. government officials. Her computer has been seized, her notes confiscated. Pushed to her limit, Amelia meets a group of women who are ready to "bring the wars home"; they want to send a message to both the government and the multinational corporations that are profiting from wars overseas (think Haliburton). Asked to document the work that the women do and to tell their story, Amelia finds her involvement becoming less and less academic.

Powell has a solid stage presence but her characterization lacks the emotional shadings that the script seems to require. Weller is riveting as Shelley Shannon, bringing both humor and a chilling remorselessness to her portrayal. She also does well as Karen, one of the women in the terrorist cell with whom Amelia becomes involved. Travis York makes a strong impression in a variety of roles, particularly as a detestable government agent who, despite his personable demeanor, seems to thrive on cruelty. The rest of the cast is adequate without being particularly distinctive.

Urban doesn't demonize any of the historical women whose life stories he has borrowed for this play; he clarifies their motivations and often puts them in a rather sympathetic light even as he details the horrible crimes that they committed or attempted to commit. At times, Urban employs a whimsical tone and the audience ends up laughing at some of the quirkier personalities, particularly Tahana Titi.

Director Laramie Dennis seems to have difficulty in establishing the right tone for certain scenes. She's better at teasing out the play's dark humor than she is at building dramatic tension; some of the more serious moments are overplayed in a manner that is corny and/or unbelievable. The pacing of the production is slack, and the transitions between Amelia's historical chronicle of the female terrorists and her own story are, at times, awkwardly handled. The play's resolution seems rushed and unconvincing as Urban substitutes quick, melodramatic plot turns for character development. The emotional journey that Amelia undergoes within the play is muddled at best; key moments of her story are either missing or given such a superficial gloss as to have no meaning.

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