The War Anthology

[This review appeared in Variety the week of March 19th.]

Synthesizing the work of over 100 artists—including 10 playwrights (three Pulitzer-winners)—is a daunting task at best, yet Curious Theatre Company's ambitious examination of the U.S. at war comes through with flying colors. Buoyed by superb writing and stirring performances, director and co-playwright Bonnie Metzgar achieves a remarkable consistency of style with flexible set and costume design, power-packed dance and musical segues, elegant video and photographic treatment, and recurring dramatic themes. The material and research is strong throughout with more than an hour left on the cutting room floor.

Surrounded by barbed wire, sandbags, denuded trees, foot lockers, and concrete walls, a.d. Chip Walton set the stage for the world premiere by reading a letter from a decorated U.S. military veteran—a ritual to be followed at each performance.

Photo of Step Pearce in Paula Vogel's The Closest I've Been to War
Step Pearce in Paula Vogel's
"The Closest I've Been to War"
Photo: Mark Montour-Larson
Paula Vogel's "The Closest I've Been to War," opens the production by connecting contemporary culture with the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Director Metzgar remarked in an earlier interview that, given the time constraints of one production, she chose this as a starting point because she sees it as the period when justifications for U.S. military actions became problematic.

Political economists would have no trouble justifying this point, since it was the North's burgeoning industrial base and its munitions industries that brought warnings from Lincoln of "corruption in high places," and formed the basis for what Eisenhower, in his famous farewell speech warning, later dubbed "the military-industrial complex."

Arguably, it was also pressure from this increasingly powerful constituency (and Hearst's "yellow journalism") that led to the suspicious sabotaging of the battleship Maine and Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill, the latter action serving as symbolism in this play for the inaugural decade of American colonialism that included forays into Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and the Philippines.

Though, certainly, the economic imperatives that drove the Revolutionary War (what Jefferson called "the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations") and the westward expansion of the nation (sold under the quasi-religious argument of "Manifest Destiny") are prevalent throughout early American history as well.

Alternating dream sequences, poetic excerpts (Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass"), and poignant historical incidents (the unearthing of a Union gravesite in Maryland at a construction site), Vogel's work evokes passionate and reverential perfs from thesps Dee Covington and Step Pearce.

Photo of Peter Trinh and Manuel R. Roybal, Sr. pick Suzan-Lori Park's Welcome Me
Peter Trinh and Manuel R. Roybal, Sr. pick
Suzan-Lori Park's "Welcome Me"
Photo: Mark Montour-Larson
Metzgar follows by employing a universal soldier (Manuel R. Roybal, Sr.) to lend perspective, occasional narrative voice, and folk-guitar flavor to the mélange of national conflicts. The worldly Roybal, looking every inch the Vietnam Vet he is, recalls the moral urgency of '60's protest singers with a stirring rendition of Suzan-Lori Parks' haunting song, "Welcome Me," which conjures returning servicemen, dead and alive, a few verses at a time as the evening unfolds.

Photo of Dee Covington and Karen Slack in one of the ensemble's drill exercises
Dee Covington and Karen Slack
in one of the ensemble's drill exercises
Photo: Michael Ensminger
After an impressive drill exercise and marching sequence in which the ensemble displays its battle-hardened readiness, Stephen Foster's racially-tinged anthem "Old Kentucky Home," leads to an examination of the role of African-Americans in military service, including a stunning speech delivered by Tyee Tilghman that draws on the fiery rhetoric of the Black Muslims and Malcolm X.

The inextricable connection of photography and modern war is brought into focus by Will Eno's "Bully Composition," which explicates the ambiguous emotions behind the faces of soldiers as they either prepare for battle or mark their survival. Eno's knack for mixing existentialism and humor is highlighted by Karen Slack's breathtaking monologue and hilarious antics as a high-strung photographic assistant and Erik Sandvold's otherworldly channeling of a soldier rushing the enemy's position.

Photo of Karen Slack and Tyee Tilghman in Melissa Lucero McCarl's The Pledge of Lesions
Karen Slack and Tyee Tilghman
in Melissa Lucero McCarl's
"The Pledge of Lesions"
Photo: Michael Ensminger
A series of images and accompanying chants from Vietnam era anti-war demonstrations serve as a bumper into a stirring speech by Chief Black Kettle (Tyee Tilghman). This kicks off Melissa Lucero McCarl's heartbreaking "The Pledge of Lesions," an uncomfortably close-to-home exploration of the Sand Creek Massacre, where the U.S. cavalry raped, slaughtered, and dismembered Native American women and children that had been promised protection by President Lincoln. Mainstream ignorance of this event is revealed in interplay between an elementary school teacher and a Native American student.

A '50's propaganda film extolling U.S. citizens to "duck and cover" to survive nuclear attacks sets up Elaine Romero's eye-opening "Rain of Ruin," in which a romantically involved Mexican-American woman and a Japanese-American man work through an impasse in their relationship involving the effects of the bombing of Hiroshima on his family. Dramatic interplay between GerRee Hinshaw and Peter Trinh and well-researched arguments detailing the post-bombing alteration of U.S. estimates of potential soldier deaths from a conventional solution balance out some contrived material. Noh background movement and photos keep the horror of Hiroshima front and center.

Photo of Dee Covington as Laura Bush in Tony Kushner's Only We Who Guard the Myserty Shall Be Unhappy
Dee Covington as
Laura Bush in
Tony Kushner's
"Only We Who
Guard the Mystery
Shall Be Unhappy"
Photo: Michael Ensminger
A snappy ballroom dance featuring Adolf Hitler (Pearce) and Eva Braun (Covington), replete with footage of Nazi Germany's first family frolicking with friends, is contrasted with audio of Eddie Cantor singing a biting requiem to war. This is followed by another round of Parks' song and some heavy blues riffs by Roybal and Trinh that segue into the first staging of Tony Kushner's "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy."

Previously published in The Nation and recited at Democratic fundraisers, Kushner's mind-boggling fantasy of Laura Bush talking with dead Iraqi schoolchildren about the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov comes alive in an inspired performance by Covington whose impersonation and emotional vicissitudes leave the aud breathless. Again, specifics facts are offered: Here it's the number of Iraqi children (est. 600,000) who have died as a result of continuous (since the first Gulf War, 1991) American and British bombing of water filtration plants and other civilian targets; these figures are contrasted with Saddam Hussein's damage to his own people, thus undermining yet another excuse for the theft of the Iraqi oilfields.

Photo of GerRee Hinshaw in Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz' One Shot in Lotus Position
GerRee Hinshaw in
Steven Sapp and
Mildred Ruiz'
"One Shot in
Lotus Position"
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Metzgar then shifts the tone in the final pieces. Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz' "One Shot in Lotus Position" intercuts a mother's recollections of her only child's life with her son's musing on his photographic work in the killing fields of Vietnam. Hinshaw's heart-wrenching depiction of a mother's loss and Tilghman's passionate appeal for valuing the moment raise the personal stakes for the evening. Here, Brian Freeland's special photographic effects add the right touch of magic (as his tasteful video and well-researched stock footage does throughout the production).

Photo of Erik Sanvold in Robert Lewis Vaughan's Weird Water
Erik Sandvold in
Robert Lewis Vaughan's
"Weird Water"
Photo: Michael Ensminger
After a Gumboots-inspired version of the ensemble drill exercise explodes across the stage, Robert Lewis Vaughan's "Weird Water" mixes visceral truths with inventive imagery to bring the Iraqi War home. Sandvold's excruciating portrayal of a father's pain over his son's death brings the final transformation in an evening of multiple catharses.

The exclamation point is delivered with shots of military cemeteries and flag-draped coffins (including the one the government didn't want you to see), Hinshaw's transcendent reprise of Park's song, and the final heart-thumping drill exercise in which the entire ensemble drums and marches in front of video montage of fireworks. Who says the flag and the Fourth of July have been expropriated by the war-mongers?

Curious Theatre Company's world premiere of The War Anthology runs through April 29th. 303-623-0524.

Bob Bows


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