by CHRISTINE SARKES
“Dirty Business: The Spy Musical” at the History Theatre is an entertaining and enjoyable take on the world of females spies during World War II. The packed Sunday matinee performance attests to public fascination with the topic, which coincides with several new books, a television series and a possible movie focusing on these brave and mostly overlooked patriots (more on that later). Playwright/Lyricist Laurie Flanigan Hegge deserves much credit for bringing the lives of these amazing women to the stage, for not shying away from the more controversial aspects of their tradecraft, such as using sex as a “honey trap” to gain information, and for highlighting anti-Semitic appeasement policies in pre-war Great Britain and elsewhere. I get why crafting a musical with composer Robert Elhai might lighten the heavy themes and appeal to broader audiences, but I couldn’t help wondering throughout the performance if a musical could really do justice to the serious danger these women faced and the sacrifices they made.
The musical focuses on the lives and loves of four “badass resisters” as their spy stories intersect: Minnesota-born Betty Pack (Kendal Anne Thompson), Codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman (Melanie Wehrmacher), Spymaster Vera Atkins (Jennifer Baldwin Peden) and Chanteuse Josephine Baker (Timotha Lanae). Betty Pack is the main protagonist and we see immediately that her complex, troubled relationships with family and men cause her to make a series of decisions that lead her to the life of espionage. Is it a taste for adventure, a desire to defy convention, an escape from reality or blind patriotism that drive her or does she see that all of these combined make her an ideal spy? She is indeed a complex character and we both delight and cringe at her ability to manipulate men so easily. For me personally, this is the most difficult aspect of portraying women spies in the modern era and in this musical; how do we give them the respect and admiration they deserve while focusing on titillating scenes of negligees, bare thighs, illicit sex and the honey traps laid as part of their tradecraft? To be sure, Betty Pack used her sex appeal to manipulate, but why not focus on the brainy and equally fascinating code breaker Elizebeth Friedman as they did with her contemporaries in ITV’s “The Bletchley Circle”? I understand the draw of a Minneapolis-born heroine, but the “male gaze” of the musical left me wondering about the real Betty Pack.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a former research analyst with the CIA and the topic of women spies, especially during WWII, has always been close to my heart. Reading the play guide and press materials, I know Hegge admires these women as much as I do. However, what she and others may not know is that the misperception that female case officers are trained in the art of seduction persists even today. In fact, male and female case officers are prohibited from sleeping with their foreign agents, a mistake that could derail a career. Not only is it prohibited but it has also been found to be ineffective in recruiting and managing a useful, long-term foreign agent (read Valerie Plame’s article in the Daily Beast: https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-women-of-the-cia”)
“As a former covert CIA operations officer, I have always been nonplussed by the portrayal of female CIA officers in the popular media. The girl (and it’s always a girl) is usually nothing more substantial than a one-dimensional cartoon character, always stunningly sexy without much in the way of intellect to balance a heavy reliance on sheer physicality. For decades, the message has been drummed into the public mind that female CIA officers must rely on their good looks and clever ways with a weapon to be successful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked by seemingly reasonable people whether I had to sleep with sources to get the intelligence, and did I carry a gun and have I ever killed anyone? The answer to each of those questions: no.”
Is it really fair to impose this level of scrutiny on a musical designed to inform and entertain? Probably not. Thompson and the rest of the cast give good performances and I would, in the end, recommend seeing the musical to learn more about these fascinating characters and enjoy good quality theater. This original piece is part of a “HERstory Theatre,” a wonderful program that showcases women’s stories: “From January to June 2019, History Theatre transforms into HERstory Theatre and shines a spotlight on amazing women, encourages conversation around gender equality and emphasizes the importance of telling herstory. Herstory Theatre features three world premieres — Stewardess!, Sisters of Peace and Dirty Business, written by and telling real stories about real women in Minnesota.”
In the meantime, if you want to learn more check out these sources:
Code Name: Lise: The True Story of World War II’s Most Highly Decorated Spy by Larry Loftis
Spymistress: The Life of Vera Atkins, The Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II by William Stevenson
The Last Goodnight: A World War II Story of Espionage, Adventure, and Betrayal by Howard Blum
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of The American Spy Who Helped Win WWII by Sonia Purnell. Daisy Ridley is attached to star as WWII spy Virginia Hall
Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS by Elizabeth P. McIntosh
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy
Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House by Valerie Plame Wilson and Laura Rozen
Dirty Business: The Spy Musical, Book & Lyrics by Laurie Flanigan Hegge, Music & Arrangements by Robert Elhai
Directed by Ron Peluso. Tinia Moulder (choreographer), Joel Sass (Scenic). Orchestra features Jake Endres as musical director and pianist, David Birk (guitar), Marilyn Parker (reeds), Erik Schee (drums), and Shannon van der Reck (bass). Performances May 4-26, 2019. Ticket information: Adults: $25-$56. Seniors (60+ years old): $25-$52. Students (age 5 to college, ID required ): $15. Discount rates are available for groups of 10 or more. Call 651-292-4320 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dynamic ticket pricing applies. Performances will be held at History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul, MN 55101. Tickets available at History Theatre Box Office at 651-292-4323 or http://www.historytheatre.com.