ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
Bury the Dead
By Elyse Sommer
The fantastical yet all too real story of the war that was still an anticipatory nightmare in the playwright's mind revolves around six dead soldiers who refuse to allow themselves to be buried in the trench dug by two of their buddies. They stand up, one by one, explaining why they claim the right to not be covered up and forgotten. (for example: "I didn't chose to give my life for four yards of bloody mud," . . ."Maybe there's too many of us under the ground now. Maybe the earth can't stand it no more," . . . "We are reclaiming our home; we didn't ask for permission to leave.")
The ghostly rebellion in the battlefield throws the powers that be into a tizzy. It's an ironical twist on history since it threatens the established pattern of periodically waged wars fought by young patriots willing to fight, die and be buried — with memorials and soldiers cemeteries becoming sightseeing destinations. And so the generals accustomed to mapping combat strategies must now find a strategy to make the dead men lie down and be buried. The maneuver they come up with is to send the women the men left behind to persuade their loved ones to accept their place in the scheme of things —a world where peace is regularly interrupted by war.
There's no question about the timeliness of this fantastical farce about leaders who expect their youths to accept death before really living, often not for a cause of their own choosing. But the play's more than thirty characters pose a staging challenge, especially so for a small company with a budget too small to contemplate anything like the legendary Group Theater's premiere production in 1936. Not only did that company mount this first play by a still unknown writer, but they went all out by taking it right to Broadway with a 32-actor cast. I was pleased to see that the Transport Group was able to enlist the talented Joe Calarco, who knows how to make a virtue out of economical staging.
Calarco first made a name for himself as adapter and director of R&R, in which four schoolboys play all the parts in Romeo & Juliet. This much praised high concept adaptation has since traveled all over the world. During recent summers, I saw Calarco again display his multi-faceted talents with several productions for Barrington Stage's Musical Theater Lab. He gracefully directed The Burnt Part Boys so that its lack of sophisticated production values was barely noticeable. He not only directed but wrote the libretto for The Mysteries Of Harris Burdick inspired by a children's book of the same name.
Now, Calarco has pared down all those characters in Bury the Dead so that six actors play all the male parts, and Transport favorite, Donna Lynne Champlin takes on all the women. The actors are capable multi-taskers. So far so good. But Calarco, not content with just streamlining his production, has once again donned his hat as a writer by adding a prologue to Shaw's script. Titled A Town Meeting, that add-on is an interesting device for bringing the two great wars between which Shaw set his play into the present.
Unfortunately, the tone of the introductory material is off-putting and keeps us too long from the material that packs the strongest emotional wallop. By making the host and organizer of his Town Hall Meeting a rather silly chatterbox who begins by breaking the fourth wall and handing out cookies to the audience, Calarco is obviously making a point about people going on with their hum drum, entertainment geared lives even as their young countrymen are dying in a far away war. Some of the entertainment (like tv commentator George Stephanopoulos's practice of scrolling the names of the dead soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan) penetrates enough for the narrator/hostess to try to wake up her follow townspeople to more awareness with a reading of Bury the Dead. However, Champlin a fine actress (and singer) is directed to be more irritating than engaging in this role, so that we don't really connect with her until the painful scenes where she plays the women sent to persuade their fallen loved ones to follow the generals' bidding. The most devastating of these scenes has her portraying a mother, who insists that her young son son who had half his face blown off (a touching Mandell Butler) remove his bandages so she can see him one last time.
The idea of e Stephanopoulos' weekly scrolling of casualty lists to trigger the idea for a reading of Bury the Dead and perhaps get involved in a memorial works in the sense that the volunteer readers from the audience, segue quite smoothly from awkward readers into active participants in the Shaw drama. (The agility with which the actors leap from the audience to the theater's stage is a poignant contrast with what happens to their once equally agile characters' bodies). But the narrator's humorous asides aren't especially funny and are too long and intrusive.
Irwin Shaw survived the war to enjoy a successful writing career but he never forgot his concerns about the effects of war. After being blacklisted as a Communist during the McCarthy era, he left the country for which he risked becoming one of the many who laid down their lives and spend the rest of his life (he died in 1984) in Europe. I think he'd be gratified to see productions of Bury the Dead by two adventurous theater companies — but sad, if not surprised, that the pattern of periodic wars goes on.
Bury the Dead-- Los Angeles production
Burnt Part Boys
The Myseries of Harris Burdick
Shakespeare's R & R