TossPot Productions can chalk up another marvelous theater piece with "Good Men Wanted." Keven Armento's script is a near-perfect balance of realism and surrealism, facts, fantasy, motivational analysis and extreme yet credible emotion. The cast, directed by Carrie Yanagawa, all deliver sharp and lively characters and also perform their ensemble work -- and there's a lot of it -- with amazing precision.
The plot, or rather plots, involve women who dressed as men to fight in the Civil War. The names, most of them, are of real people from history. Many of the incidents associated with them are also real. Charlotte Hope really did vow to kill 21 Yankees to avenge her dead sweetheart.
Other details are adjusted as a matter of theatrical license; Hope was not a Southern plantation belle but a poor and tough farm girl. Melverina Peppercorn, a free woman of color, fights for the Union in the play, but according to history she and her twin brother enlisted in the Confederate army. The Civil War was much more complicated than what's usually presented.
Therein lies the beauty of this play. Armento touches on the big political issues that drove the conflict, slavery and states rights and so forth, but focuses on the personal stories to create a panorama of the conflict as sweeping and intense as any big screen depiction of the great battles. Millions of men and women fought, killed and died in that war. Each had their own reason.
The women in this play enlist out of patriotism, revenge, necessity, family fidelity or a quest for adventure. Their stories weave in and out, sometimes unfolding simultaneously in a crossfire of lines and action. It makes for a fast-moving yet clear and easy-to-understand mosaic. In addition, Armento's speechifying sometimes takes a delicious turn toward the florid period dialect encountered in books like "True Grit."
None of that would matter if the actors weren't up to their jobs. Happily, this crew nails it. Shelly Wozniak may be giving the best performance of her life as transgendered Albert Cashier, brought up as a boy. Jill Sowerwine portrays Charlotte Hope with the fury of Medea. Rachel Cheathon, perhaps the smallest person onstage, makes us believe she's the muscular, 6-foot-tall Melverina Peppercorn of history.
Erin Campbell is a fresh-faced 14-year-old Lizzie Compton, who still holds the distinction of having served in more outfits than any other U.S. soldier (she kept switching when her secret was discovered). And Taylor Campbell is V.A. White, a prostitute who signs up for the money to feed her daughter.
The roster is filled out by three good men, Frank Delaney, Todd Glidewell and Will Jackson, who take on a number of roles, sometimes without the benefit of a costume change from North to South.
The carefully detailed costumes, by Colleen Metzger, are a big part of the show, both the uniforms and the civilian dress, the outer coats and the abundant undergarments as revealed when we get to watch a Victorian strip show. That's not as erotic as it sounds.
Another big part of the show is the choreography by Danielle Rabinovitch. When the women start to drill, the sound shifts from roots music to hard metal. A drunken revel at the camp and slow motion fight scenes (Delaney's work) also create impressions that transcend dialogue. Tyler Carlson's sound design is complex, but spot on.
Before the play begins, characters come out and give silent pantomimes revealing their states of mind before marching off to war. On Sunday this was stretched to 15 or more minutes as the house management held the door for late arrivals; the closure of Fourth Avenue for Fur Rendezvous events created some delays for people trying to find parking. This was the only draggy part of the afternoon and, we'll presume, an anomaly.
But if not, "Good Men Wanted" is still great entertainment, top-drawer theater and extremely thought-provoking without being preachy. Nicely timed for Women's History Month, it lays out a host of gender issues in a way that short-circuits one's tendency to dismiss contemporary rhetoric that has been repeated so often as to drift into cliché. In this "war against women/against men," however, real bullets are flying and, it's suggested, the women fight for different reasons than motivate their male co-combatants.
One especially pointed moment comes when White writes to her daughter that she's been handed a ballot for the election of a Confederate congress along with the rest of her troop. "I voted," she says with a mix of excitement and surprise. In 2016, universal suffrage is old history, wallpaper for most people. Through good theater, with just a few words, the modern viewer experiences afresh the sense of empowerment that came from holding a ballot in one hand and a gun in the other.
As noted, the Civil War was a complex affair.
GOOD MEN WANTED will be presented at Cyrano's at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through March 20. Tickets are available at centertix.net.