Review – Dogfight – Southwark Playhouse

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A new musical is always a cause for celebration Chez Webcowgirl. I’m convinced the glories of the “golden age” were due in part to the high volume of new shows being created during that time; without a higher volume, it’s hard for the cream to rise to the top. So I was enthusiastically ready for Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse – a new musical, bring it!

And yet somehow so many years had passed between the movie that is this show’s source material and now that I had pretty much completely forgotten about Dogfight and how revolting I thought its premise was. The thought of a contest to see who could bring the ugliest girl to a party is deeply offensive to me. And as I sat there, realizing what I was about to see, I felt a creeping sense of horror. I’ve avoided seeing Taming of the Shrew for ages because I can’t find comedy in misogyny, and this evening brought that feeling right to the front again. There was a drama going on centered on the young men going to Vietnam – the “Three Bees” – which to me seemed an interesting subject to focus on. Birdlace (Jamie Muscato), Bernstein (Nicholas Corre) and Bolan (Chellen Chugg Jones) are three young Marines having their last hurrah before being shipped out to Vietnam – and it’s clear they don’t have the faintest idea what they’re about to face. They’re not just full of bravado – they are genuinely steeped in ignorance about America’s military might and their own power.

But as the play goes on and I saw how their sense of elitism, entitlement, and arrogance leads them to treat other people as things – to be screwed, screwed over, or shot – I found my ability to empathize with them disappearing. These guys were jerks, from a long line of jerks, and their attitudes are the basis of the rape culture we have today, where raped women have to defend their clothing and pretty much their entire sexual histories if they bring an attacker to trial.

And watching the show, I felt a sense of creeping horror at what it took to create it. What does it mean to hire an actress to be “the ugly one” or “the fat one?” What kind of mentality does it take to put a woman in front of an audience and dress her in a way that deliberately makes her unattractive? To me there seemed to be a meanness pervasive in the whole exercise. It was even more grating to see the very pretty Rose (Laura Jane Matthewson), with her beautiful voice, presented to us as ugly and fat. (And for her to be put in a dress clearly from the 1980s for the big party scene – seriously, Lee Newby, you got so much of this era right, did you have to screw that one up so hard? It ruined my suspension of disbelief. Sew a new one if you couldn’t find a 1964 era dress in maroon.)

The songs were serviceable, the choreography lively, the music sadly forgettable. The whole effort was almost saved by the incredible charisma of Jamie Muscato … almost. But it was brought down by Rose’s characterization – not how she was performed, but how she was written. Rose had to be cut from cardboard for the whole thing to make dramatic sense, because no woman with self respect would ever forgive or want in her life someone who thought picking a stranger out to be an object of ridicule was an acceptable pastime. As a person who sees women as people, I just can’t forgive this show for choosing to take as its premise that they aren’t. I was relieved at its short running time because I felt complicit watching it, much as I did watching Carousel. With luck, my next musical outing will meet with greater success.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 21st, 2014.)

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