Semper Fi, Ladies! Babes With Blades Train with the USMC in Promise of a Rose Garden
Popular myth dictates that the "few good men" of the United States Marines, being trained in combat to the exclusion of other skills, spend most of their off-duty time in recreational activities based on perfecting their battle readiness, whether through martial sports or old-fashioned street brawling. This archetype also applies when the marines are female, as in Dustin Spence's The Promise of a Rose Garden. The author has proclaimed his hope that by imposing familiar band-of-brothers tropes on the pioneering WMs taking advantage of the recent announcement putting an end to gender restrictions on combat positions by volunteering for the grueling Advance Infantry Officer Course, he will "level the playing field" for portrayals of women-in-uniform.
What this entails are activities such as swapping gunfire of every caliber, PTSD-fueled hallucinations of death-angels, group-guzzle drinking, vulgar language of the sort that men imagine women speak and a tendency toward physical violence employed as casually as its verbal equivalent in other branches of the service. Granted, the Babes With Blades are no strangers to theatrical violence, but Rose Garden's wartime setting demands highly specialized fighting techniques, calling for a consultant well-versed in the nuances thereof.
"Many men and women assisted in building this production", says Rachel Flesher, the production's violence designer and a member of Tactics On Set, a Canada-based team of fight instructors who coach actors playing cops, robbers, terrorists and other paramilitary agents, "I scheduled a 'boot camp' and brought in actual marines to put us through conditioning exercises—running, squat-jumping, obstacle courses—all executed at the lakeside beaches where the deep sand would reduce foot traction to make it more difficult. We also learned squad formation and weapon handling. The physical work helped to push us mentally and grow as a team."
Despite the "wookies" complaints about how exhausted they are from their training, they still find the energy for personal squabbling and scrapping. "I tell the actors to 'use the tired' [in the fights] so that they don't have to act it." Flesher notes, too, the widely varied backgrounds of the recruits, some of whom were likely practiced in rough-housing when they enlisted, "I also asked them to consider how their characters learned to fight, and what background influences they wanted to draw from to help influence the style of each fight. For example, Ferguson is an overachiever and traveled a lot growing up, so her fighting style has a lot of range and patience, while Nichols draws on schoolyard strategies learned as a child in Kentucky."
The play has its soldiers utilizing a wide variety of prop firearms—in reality, hard-rubber replicas of the arsenal supplied troops in the last two wars—but their orientation began with hands empty, "Marines are riflemen first," Flesher reminds us, "so it was important that everyone know how to find their target, or move from standing to prone position, before dealing with actual weapons."
What does she think today's theatergoers will take away from the play? "The hardest part of doing this show," declares Flesher, "is trying to convey, in only a few weeks, the years of experience and training these women have undergone. Whatever each individual audience member brings to the play will shape their reaction and how they connect with it. My greatest desire was to tell the story of these armed forces as truthfully as I could."
The Promise of a Rose Garden continues at City Lit Theater through September 10.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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