Carpet Bombers
Ken Urban wants lesbians to blow shit up. So should you.

by Joel Beers

Thomas Paine, that criminally overlooked paragon of civil indignation, wrote a helluva soundbite. Two of his pithiest are in the program of Ken Urban's new play: "God put hatred in men's hearts for good reason: to ensure justice" and "It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government."

Hatred toward, injustice by and protection from Big Brother all factor into Urban's play, The Female Terrorist Project, which, contrary to the title, doesn't bash women.

The Female Terrorist Project is the tale of a female history professor who comes under investigation for her interviews of woman terrorists. Hounded by the Department of Homeland Security and fired from her university, she is recruited by a radical organization of women determined to "bring the wars home" by blowing shit up.

Interspersed with this story are testimonials—culled from interviews conducted by said teacher (Deborah Conroy)—from female terrorists ranging from a [Chechen] involved in the [Moscow Theatre take-over] to a Christian zealot stalking abortion doctors. The common denominator of these accounts: no one suspects the women, even though, as stated early in the play, the so-called weaker sex is custom-built for terrorism. They're genetically wired with a higher pain threshold (baby's first water slide is a bitch for mommy) and possess an innate ability to commit to a cause more readily than a male (it does take a village to raise that kid, no?), and perhaps most important, members of the "weaker sex" aren't made of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails.

Other than a misguided attempt at further pushing his play's politics by making his fictitious radical organization overtly lesbian, Urban's play is a compelling blend of X-Files paranoia and disgusted left-of-center rage at a government exporting precision-honed terrorism around the globe. You don't need a weatherman to tell which way Urban's politics blow. Sure, maybe a more subtle, well-measured examination of this country's hypocrisy and greed would better deliver his points, but there's nothing subtle about what we're doing to the rest of the world, so fuck it. Our president is an asshole, his interpretation of his Bible is horribly wrong, and his administration is vile and corrupt. And the time for polite discourse about the terrible direction this country is heading is over.

Urban's play is anything but polite. It won't convince any of the morons who support our criminal regime's outrageous warmongering—and the corporations that fuel it—to wake the fuck up, but if it convinces just one woman to go out and blow up a Gap outlet, it'll be worth it. And obviously we don't really mean any of this, but then again . . .

Women warriors with a 'Project'

Thought-provoking topicality marks "The Female Terrorist Project" in its West Coast premiere at the Rude Guerrilla Theatre. Maverick playwright Ken Urban trains his distinctive eye on estrogenic anarchy in the post-Patriot Act landscape.

The fragmented narrative swings between first-person accounts from real-life extremists and protagonist Amelia (Deborah Conroy). This college historian introduces the ostensible précis while presenting her titular study: "Counterterrorism experts offer this advice — shoot the women first."

Amelia's research alerts an omnipresent Department of Homeland Security. An airplane conversation with stranger Karen (Jessica Aldridge) leads Amelia to a radical feminist cell. By the end, Amelia has sacrificed more than her academic detachment, and so has America.

Urban charts this cautionary tale with hieratic restraint and conversational realism amid the depicted torture and described atrocities. Director-designer Dave Barton's paint-splattered plastic drapes and renegade video montages are wholly serviceable, aided by co-lighting designer Dawn Hess and costumer Kathleen Hotmer.

Conroy inhabits Amelia by edgy degrees. Aldridge, Jennifer Cadena and the vivid Wendy Braun make invested activists. Natasha Atalla's unflinching Palestinian, Karen Harris' abortion clinic bomber, Sara Mashayekh's deadpan Arab, Erika Tai's enervated North Korean and Julia Emelin's rending Chechen mother have surreal concentration. Lisa Sproul and Cynthia Huyck make solid authorities, while Jay Michael Fraley rips through multiple roles. Their intense playing counters Barton's correct yet faintly sterile emphasis on understatement, which honors talk as often as shock, with some arid transitions and tonal shifts. Such reticence could prove helpful in reaching resistant minds. It may trouble those who need a screed to bleed.

--David C. Nichols

"The Female Terrorist Project," Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; also 8 p.m. Feb. 24. Ends Feb. 26. Mature audiences. $15. (714) 547- 4688. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Friday, February 11, 2005
'Terrorist Project' hits its target
Review: Rude Guerrilla's West Coast premiere gives us profound concepts to chew on.

Special to the Register

If Ken Urban's aim in writing "The Female Terrorist Project" was to shake us up and awaken us to a startling sub-level of terrorism we might not have
realized existed, he has hit the bull's-eye.

But, make no mistake about it - for those who think the 2004 play, now in its West Coast premiere at Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, is a clarion call to the American government to remain vigilant, think again. Based on actual cases, "Terrorist Project" is a warning to all those who have heeded, without thinking through the consequences, a national policy that could give short shrift to civil liberties. Without making its characters overly sympathetic, "Project" tries - and, on the whole, succeeds - in offering a glimpse into the motives of women whose activities have earned them the label "terrorist."

Our window into this dizzyingly diverse world is Amelia Stern (Deborah Conroy), a university history professor and historian compiling a painstaking study of female terrorists, from captured Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled (Natasha Atalla) to Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon (Karen Harris), an American abortion clinic bomber.

Amelia's aim is to burrow into the hearts and minds of her subjects,
interview them up close, and document their actions, then deliver her findings in the form of lectures, articles and, eventually, a book. Her interests are purely academic, but the Department of Homeland Security takes a special interest in her study.

Amelia's project also draws the attention of a homegrown underground movement of women headed by Tanya (Wendy Braun) and her lieutenant, Karen (Jessica Aldridge). Karen, in particular, finds Amelia intriguing. Like the U.S. government and its agents, she's convinced that any woman so fascinated by what makes female terrorists tick must, at some level, sympathize with their mindset. Who knows - Amelia may even be ready to join the movement herself. "Terrorist Project" basically unfolds along two parallel lines. The first follows Amelia as she moves further into Karen's circle and, released from her teaching job under a dark cloud, becomes a spokeswoman for the movement; the second is a platform for the female terrorists Amelia has interviewed - Khaled; Shannon; Kim Hyon Hui (Erika Tai), a North Korean who bombed an airliner, killing 155; Zarema (Julia Emelin), a Chechnyan committed to getting the point of her people across to the Russians; and Tahana Titi (Sara Mashayekh), a Palestinian scholar living in Israel.

Urban uses the terrorists as a Greek chorus to Amelia's life as she's framed,
falsely accused and fired; joins the movement, first as its historian, then
as an activist; and winds up captured by U.S. agents who believe that "violence is necessary to prevent violence" - a mantra that spells a horrifying end for Amelia. Much of "Terrorist Project" is, in fact, heavily doctrinaire: Urban doesn't so much create strong, memorable characters as he does figures who speak words of considerable emotional power - none more chilling than "Welcome to the new America."

Director Dave Barton and his cast transform this broad, ambitious play into
something of depth and considerable emotion. Like the women she studies,
Conroy's Amelia undergoes something transformative, from idealism to angry activism, epitomized by the line "the molecules that make me have shifted in some profound way, and I want more." Aldridge invests Karen with single-minded intensity, a powerful attraction to Amelia and, late in the play, frustration and guilt over the movement. Braun is a ruthless, no-nonsense Tanya and Jennifer Cadena one of the movement's more eager, potent young members.

As U.S. agents, Lisa Sproul is the calm, rational "good cop" agent and Jay
Michael Fraley the sadistic "bad cop," the pair an unfeeling, malevolent tag
team using torture on captured members of the movement. (Fraley plays all the male characters, none more incisive than his Agent Hudson.)

Calling herself "a nice, civilized Christian," Harris' Shelley is a deranged
fanatic who goes further around the bend with each new attack on a "killing center" (abortion clinic). Her polar opposite is Atalla's resolute, stone-faced
Leila. Like Kim, Leila describes the odd sensation of emotionlessness when killing others - yet, she's fervent in her beliefs. Tai's Kim, though, moves from intense hatred of the United States to quiet shame at having killed others. Mashayekh's Tahana expresses everything from bitter irony to suicidal depression, while Emelin's calm Zarema is surprised by her ability to perpetrate terrorism and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, feels hopelessness and despair over having "nothing left to lose" - a sense shared by them all.

Barton and company find the pulse of this "Project" from the get-go, then never let up. Just the same, the story ends on a grace note - and, at that, one
of surprising compassion.

Freelance writer Eric Marchese has covered entertainment for the Register
since 1984.


The Rude Guerrilla Theatre Company has never retreated from their confrontational aesthetic, remaining fiercely committed to provoking social conversation through theatre. The Female Terrorist Project resonates all too closely to home in these days of censorship, hatred, and intimidation, by tapping into the minds of the least stereotyped terrorists — women. Playwright Ken Urban paves a path for the audience to glimpse the passionate and twisted motivations of his female characters, laying in your face the deadly ramifications of modern day fanaticism in its many forms. Current times call for probing, honest, and sometimes bloody theatre, so it's heartening to know that Rude Guerrilla continues to put it on the table. (Allen Moon)