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A CurtainUp Review
Armed and Naked in America: A Naked Angels Issue Project
By Elyse Sommer
Until writers who have actually experienced the Iraq War first-hand have processed what they've seen and felt and created novels and plays like All Quiet on the Western Front and Journey's End (currently revived on Broadway) and The Naked and the Dead, programs like Naked Angels' two weeks of one-acts about life during wartime America serve as necessary interim dramas.
More than fifty artists (playwrights, directors, actors and designers) have banded together for two evenings, each presenting six plays and two videos.
Designer David Rockwell has wrapped the Duke Theater's stage and seating area in an abstract frame with all the doors metaphorically askew (including the theater's entranceways). A circular platform accommodates props and action particular to the individual plays. It unifies the evening into a compelling collage and I assume this handsome and very serviceable set-up will serve the second week's plays as well as the first set I saw Friday night.
The Week A evening gets off to a fine start with three plays about young Americans for whom the Iraq war is not something seen on television, or followed via newspapers or blogs. In the curtain raiser, Woman at War by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, Maureen (Zabryna Guevara), a woman soldier and narrator talks about the fellow machinery engineer who was killed when he climbed underneath a rig that is now "finally, once and for fucking all N.S. E.—non salvageable equipment." Guevara is excellent as the determinedly cocky and cool Maureen who in the end does admits that she gets confused when everything seems turned inside out and "it feels like whatever was life is death and whatever is death might be life." While Guevara is the only performer on stage, the back panel turns into a scrim through which we see the shadows of the rest of the men in Maureen's unit.
The next piece, Myrtle Beach by Dan Klores, starts off looking like a World War II movie with two soldiers relaxing with a beautiful stagedoor canteen hostesses. A lovely and deceptive beginning for what turns out to be a devastating heartbreaker. David Deblinger and Yul Vazquez are Head and Torso, a tragic variation of Beckett's talkative Winnie and silent Willie, though in this case both these former buddies have plenty to say about how they ended up so differently than they had expected on the first day of spring. Head ponders about the possibility "that they find us, put us together, you know. Sew me back on top of ya, send us back home in the same coffin." Torso counters with "You were always an optimist. Look at you, we're burnt to a crisp. Nobody's gonna figure it out." Deblinger and Vazquez are terrific and Katherine Crockett adds a few bright moments as the Dancer.
The third soldier story, Deirdre O'Connor's Hero takes place stateside. It portrays the youthful patriotism and urge to do something grand that has filled the ranks of fighting forces in many wars, with Natalie (Nancy McNulty), a young working class reservist packing up and trying to explain to her boyfriend Steve (James McMenamin) that her going to war has nothing to do with wanting to get away from him but is about her "doing something great and being something."
As a change of pace before the final pre-intermission play, there's a wonderfully witty video, Great American Wars: Episode 6, Video by Movie Geek, a political fantasy of sorts preceded a play about a fictional presiden, President and Man by Louis Cancelmi. Though well performed by Lizbeth Mackay, Brandon Miller and Chris Sarandon, this is something of a letdown which proves that even short plays can seem to go on way too long, as this one does. Still that left the first half of the evening with a pretty good record— three our of four-- four out of five, if you include the video.
The plays following the intermission were again well staged and acted but the plays themselves didn't quite measure up to the first three. Szinhaz by Itamar Moses, started off promisingly with a delicious performance by Bess Wohl, but it overstayed its welcome. On the other hand Jose Rivera's Sonnets for an Old Century was less a play than one of artist Jenny Holzer's installations of words and phrases displayed in flashing L.E.D. ribbons. The make-do cards used in the tense gin game of Theresa Rebeck's Cards were an apt but too obvious metaphor. The audience did have a wonderful time watching Creation Nation On the Street, the video — that was introduced by two of the creators. I wouldn't be surprised to see this and other deliberately silly street interviews show up on YouTube.
The lineup for Week B looks really exciting and I'll report back after I return to the Duke next week. But don't wait for me. Check it out yourself.
With plays by David Rabe, Will Eno and Warren Leight, and the announced actors including the always marvelous Elizabeth Marvel, I went to Week B with high expectations. Unfortunately, this evening only bore out my initial feeling that any attempt to write a play about Americans during times of conflict probably calls for more in-depth coverage and material written from first-hand experience. Most of the Week B offerings seemed to strain to avoid any direct and straightforward approach to the overall theme.
Propaganda by Cindy Lou Johnson came off more as an extended stand-up routine than a play and went on much too long to support its conceit. Even if the actors hadn't, for reasons never clearly explained by Artistic Director Jenny Gerson,been on book, David Rabe's The Excellent Uses of Spin was too obviously an excerpt (from a longer playGilamesh the Prince) and seemed out of place. Will Eno's Bully Composition had its moments (as when a photographer talking about a famous Spanish-American war photo declares "War is not hell. It's not organized enough"), but failed to make a really strong impact. The best thing about the final piece was the very realistic snow falling on the actors who had an advantage over the Rabe play's cast, in that the pauses were longer than any of the dialogue. The videos, while offering a few needed laughs, weren't on a par with last week's.
The best and most on target and worthy of being tagged a play was Amici, ascoltate by Warren Leight . It chronicles what happened to the men of an Italian-American family during wars right up to the present. The reminiscences of Tony Marino, a man in his mid 50s are prompted by his son Joey's impending departure for Iraq, making him the latest Marino boy to either enlist or be drafted. It was to pay for college that Joey "went ROTC." The play is structured so that it needs just three actors— one for the narrator, one to play his mother and grandmother, and one to play the various Marino soldiers. It's a mini epic with an O. Henry type ending and at times evokes memories of Leight's wonderful Sideman. Though obviously likely to benefit from more work, i>Amici, ascoltate has what its Week B companions lack: enough heart to make you care about its characters.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide