Only around .4 percent of all Americans currently serve in the military; it’s a fraction of the population that endures more physical and mental stress than most of us do in a lifetime. The earnest and searching Bullet Catchers drills down to study an even smaller slice of our armed forces: infantrywomen deployed to combat zones. Yoking together — not always tidily — elements of workplace drama, movement theater, and mystic allegory, the ensemble-devised piece gets a decent amount of mileage from its appealing, hardworking cast.
Some bring a unique skill set to scenes of basic training and sweeping for hostiles: Three of the eight actors are veterans of the Navy, Air Force, or Army — including the fiery Sandra W. Lee, injured while on tour in Iraq. Lee establishes the show’s mytho-feminist frame in which Até, daughter of War, travels to Earth to prove to Daddy that women can be fighters. She chooses as her champion Lt. Col. Maya De Los Santos (Jessica L. Vera), who supervises an F.I.T., or Female Integration Training program, a mixed-gender platoon. (The program is fictitious, but since 2015, women have been allowed to serve in front-line combat roles.) De Los Santos recently married Jordan (Lee again), but she’s less concerned with domestic bliss than proving her unit can hold its own in the field.
We’re guided through basic training and deployment to southeastern Turkey, with the narrative and thematic points you expect from the genre: courage, rivalry, tested loyalty. Overachiever Lieutenant Anouk Eshara (Victoria Nassif, luminous) cannot afford mission failure. Reservist Joan Boudica (Emma C. Walton) resents being thrown into combat, a lack of esprit de corps that awakens the righteous anger of gung-ho alpha Sergeant Athena (Rebecca Hirota). (Character names are not-too-subtly borrowed from goddesses and she-warriors.) Male soldiers are represented by nice-guy medic Lampido (Jay Myers) and easygoing Private Reo (Damion J. Williams). Refreshingly, the group portrait that emerges is that of likable, sane professionals; a lesser playwright might impose sexual harassment or anti-Arab bigotry to stir the pot of drama.
On the downside, the sketchy script doesn’t give our heroes in fatigues much texture or nuance, just glimpses of private life between movement sequences as the grunts hasten to intercept an arms shipment bound for insurgents. Despite its collage structure and supernatural gloss, Bullet Catchers is your standard soldier’s tale, only this time it’s women who prove their mettle on the battlefield. Pacifists, GWOT skeptics, even gender-studies undergrads will find little sustained engagement here. On a practical level, the space is the enemy: Performers struggle to be heard in Judson Memorial Church’s sprawling, reverberant sanctuary. Still, director Julia Sears (who co-conceived the worthy project with Maggie Moore) fuses her troops into a cohesive force, executing dance interludes with muscular grace and grit. It would be wrong not to thank them for their service.
Judson Memorial Church
55 Washington Square Park South
Through August 5