Sheathed attacks guilt and conflict at Theatre off Jackson

Playwright Maggie Lee and Director Amy Poisson teamed up for their fifth collaboration on Friday for the premiere of Macha Theatre Work’s “Sheathed” at Theater Off Jackson.

The tragic-comedy follows a young orphan, Ren (Ayo Tushinde), as wanders through an unnamed land, seeking to avenge the death of her father, killed in a civil war between the Tsuka and Kaji Clan which ended in a truce ten years before. Ren has spent most of her young life training for her mission, to kill the five Tsuka generals she blames for her father’s death, but by the time she comes across Bala (Sunam Ellis), a jaded veteran of a notorious Tsuka unit, while traveling through the countryside, she’s hit a bit of a wall. Ren is star-struck, raised with stories of Bala’s unit, and becomes convinced that meeting Bala is a part of her destiny. She’is determined to have the older woman take her on as her student. For her part, Bala is unconvinced, tired of bloodshed and haunted by the lives she’s taken and her failure to save the one person she cared about most, but eventually is worn down by Ren’s persistence and agrees to let the arrogant, young warrior travel with her.

If this dynamic sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The first half of the performance is chock-full of cliche, however the fantastic cast, engaging choreography and pithy dialogue saves the show from triteness. Ellis in particular is hilarious to watch, the casual drawl of her accent and delightful array of one-liners created a laugh-track type response in the audience, even before the words would leave her mouth I was chuckling in anticipation. The play’s second half veers away from realistic dialogue and into, well, drama. Over the top comedy is a safe theatrical staple, but true literary melodrama doesn’t seem to make its way onto the stage often. It’s been a while since I saw a tragic hero such as Ren outside of Shakespeare productions, and while the style was jarring at first, it was well-fitted to the performance’s underlying themes. Tragic-comedy is a difficult feat that requires straddling two very different genres, but Tushinde’s ability to play the butt of Bala’s joke as she barrels towards the tragic aspect of the script keeps Lee’s production firmly on the balance beam. While Ren’s character development can be painfully slow to watch, it’s effective at building tension.

“Sheathed” is a story of restraint, of learning to think before you do harm that you won’t be able to take back, but it is also a story of forgiveness, of letting go of harm that’s been done to you, and more importantly, of learning to let go of guilt you feel over harm you’ve already inflicted. It’s an old lesson, but one still worth reflecting on. As various characters meditate on the nature of their civil war, on the resentment and ideals that led to polarization and violence, it seems prudent to draw parallels to this country’s current political situation. However, the work also meditates on the value of art and entertainment as the anti-political, a unifying, universal force of enjoyment in a world that can seem incredibly bleak.

As far as the latter goes, “Sheathed” is a shining example and well-worth seeing.

Sheathed by Maggie Lee. Directed by Amy Poisson. Theater off Jackson. 409 7th Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104.  Thru March 24. Tickets and more info here.

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