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Heather Schmidt  in Will McMichael's Night Witches at Asylum (photo by Mandi Moss)
Heather Schmidt in Will McMichael’s Night Witches at Asylum (photo by Mandi Moss)

Night Witches

Reviewed by Amy Lyons
Asylum, Main Space
Through June 23

There’s no lack of dramatic action in this fast-paced World War II piece about a female regiment of the Soviet Air Force. The brigade of air-borne night bombers is based on the real-life 588th Regiment, a Stalinist troupe nicknamed “Nachthexen” or “Night Witches” by the Nazis, and the history lesson is the show’s most satisfying aspect. On the problematic side is the show’s identity crisis — it zig-zags a disorienting stylistic path between farce, melodrama, talky historic fiction and deadly serious tragedy. Writer-director Will McMichael’s dramaturgical mashup prevents audiences from settling in for what could be a deeply satisfying ode to the bravery of a few good women written out of the history books.

Grand Guignol is the mainstay of the San Francisco-based company, so there is some visually pleasing puppetry that starts out with arresting dramatic impact but sadly becomes gimmicky by show’s end: during fight scenes, pilots’ faces are lit a menacing red while puppeteers fly glowing planes overhead; around the third time this largely unvaried device is repeated, it loses its dramatic appeal and devolves into a hollow parlor trick. 

The cast is sufficiently solid, with Heather Schmidt bringing equal doses of innocence and shaky grit to the teenager-turned-war-hero protagonist. Julia Griswold is the standout of the ensemble, bringing a nerdy and understated brand of bravery to the reluctant but smart aviator she plays.

Asylum, 6470 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood;; through June 23.  Running time: 90 minutes