Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Cannon Fodder For The War Boom

After shuttering Alert & Oriented Medical Transcription Services at the end of 2015, I started off the new year with a project I had been stalling for a long, long time. Having acquired a new all-purpose printer, I finally had a machine at my disposal that made scanning old photographs much easier than before. I also had about 15 albums of family photos ranging from 1919 to the present.

Among the pictures were photographs from the years I worked at a YMCA sailing camp run by the Greater Providence YMCA. As I scanned them, I was amazed at how many names and faces I could remember from 50 years ago.

It only took a second to recognize the lean, athletic body of the strapping young blond who had once headed the camp's boating and canoeing program. There he was, standing in a canoe with a paddle in his hands, wearing a turned-down sailor cap with that goofy smile on his face.

Colonel Irving Heymont (center)

Although my Uncle Irving was one of the American soldiers who helped to process nearly 6,000 displaced persons (mostly Jews) at a Nazi concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany following World War II, Chuck Pfaffman was the first person I knew who had died in the Vietnam War. At the time, there was scant information about his death but today, with the help of the Internet, it only took a few quick searches to discover that, as a member of the USS Coral Sea's Grumman VAW 116  E-2A squadron, he died on April 9, 1970 after being shot down while flying over water near North Vietnam.

A Grumman VAW 116  E-2A Plane

Shortly after I moved from Providence, Rhode Island to San Francisco in 1972, I was visited by a young man I had known in the formative days of the Rhode Island Gay Alliance. Steve had been a student at Brown University who believed that his only option after graduation was to join the military. When his ship docked in San Francisco and we were able to spend a day together, his body may have been the same, but his mind and soul had been crushed during training.

The entertainment industry has always had a soft spot for war stories. From Homer's Iliad to Shakespeare's Coriolanus; from the silent film era's Wings (1927) to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), audiences have been gripped by the adventures of military heroes and the tragedy of war.

In the spring of 1963 I attended a performance of Bertolt Brecht's anti-war play, Mother Courage and Her Children, that was directed by Jerome Robbins with Anne Bancroft heading a cast that included Zohra Lampert, Barbara Harris, and Gene Wilder. Over the years, I've seen numerous pieces of anti-war entertainment ranging from Joan Littlewood's musical revue entitled Oh, What A Lovely War (1964) to Hair (1968); from Bette Midler's poignant film, For The Boys (1991,) to The Clown and the Fuhrer (2007).

Though it might be nice if there were no more wars, we will always have war stories ranging from spectacles involving the use of heavy weaponry to the more human tragedies created by war. Someday I hope to see a performance of Lysistrata, a comedy by Aristophanes that was first performed in Athens in 411 B.C.  As Wikipedia notes:
"It is a comic account of one woman's extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace -- a strategy, however, that inflames the battle between the sexes. The play is notable for being an early exposé of sexual relations in a male-dominated society."
* * * * * * * * *
For the past few months, Chris King's 12-minute film entitled Birthday has been appearing in shorts programs around the film festival circuit. The film starts off with a U.S. Marine (Chris Gouchoe) and his wife (Mandy Moody) communicating via video chat. He's due to come home from the Middle East in 43 days. She can't wait to be reunited with him.

Several days later, while out on patrol, the man loses three limbs after triggering an IED. His wife is flown to an overseas hospital to help him through several months of surgery and rehabilitation. After being fitted for prosthetic legs and a mechanical arm, he slowly adapts and gains mobility until the couple are finally able to fly home. When they arrive at their house, the soldier's parents are waiting for him with a birthday cake.

As the couple work together to help the man heal, King's film shows him learning how to eat pasta salad with a prosthetic hand, training on a recumbent bicycle, and donning a unique Christmas gift: a tee-shirt that reads "Combat Wounded Marine: Some Assembly Required." Birthday is an extremely touching film which ends on a note of optimism as the young man is seen helping to rehabilitate other soldiers who have lost limbs.  As King explains:
"The original inspiration for Birthday was a photo I saw online almost three years ago of an unknown, severely wounded young Marine. I don’t remember how I came across the picture or who the Marine was, but the expression on his damaged face haunted me. Weeks later, I decided to track him down. I ultimately found him and we ended up speaking on the phone several times. He was such an amazingly positive young man. He became my first military consultant and research interview for Birthday and the constant driving force behind my 'need' to get this film made. Almost 2-1/2 years later, this previously unknown Marine received the Medal of Honor. Most know him now as Marine Cpl. Kyle Carpenter of South Carolina."

* * * * * * * * *
Politicians keep starting wars. Military recruiters keep luring idealistic young people into their ranks. The inevitable cycle of death and destruction is filled with the collateral damage of a voracious war machine that (like the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors) demands constant feeding.

In 2013, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented the world premiere of The Unfortunates, an anti-war musical which recently received its Bay area premiere from American Conservatory Theater. The play’s storytelling method (using a combination of gospel, blues, and hip hop) is based on the idea of a world at war. As Casey Lee Hurt (who the creative team regards as their “idea distillery”) explains:
“War and music are two things that, for better or for worse, America has always had. And there's no question that music has been an outcry, a response to injustice. We sing in the hard times in the midst of tragedy, looking for solace. But we also look for a catalyst to change things for the better. World War I is where a lot of our influences are drawn from, but we're trying not to put it specifically in that time period. The reason for that is because the enemy in this play is not a regime. It's fear. For us, that's the most important element. Fear is the thing that every generation faces. And we want that to be transparent and true throughout."

Directed by Shana Cooper with choreography by Erika Chong Shuch, The Unfortunates was created by Jon Beavers, Kristoffer Diaz, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan, and Ramiz Monsef. The 90-minute show plays out on a unit set designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer with lighting by Russell H. Champa and sound designed by Brendan Aanes.

Ramiz Monsef is General Goodtimes in The Unfortunates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The evening begins with a giant recruiting poster ("Uncle Sam Wants You") setting the stage for a speech by General Goodtimes (Ramiz Monsef) urging young men to seek adventure in the military. Three goofballs -- Coughlin (Jon Beavers), CJ (Christopher Livingston), and Big Joe (Ian Merrigan) -- rise to the challenge with the kind of macho stupidity that never leads to anything good.

Christopher Livingston (CJ), Ian Merrigan (Big Joe), and
 Jon Beavers (Coughlin) in a scene from The Unfortunates 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It doesn't take long before CJ and Coughlin have fallen in the line of duty, leaving Big Joe to love and defend his new girlfriend, Rae (Taylor Iman Jones), a beautiful young woman whose hands are mysteriously tucked behind her back. As more and more gullible men (including Amy Lizardo as Handsome Carl) are inducted into battle, those left behind must deal with the tragic effects of a pernicious plague that has been killing people in great numbers.

Monsef also appears as Stack, a corrupt doctor who is supposed to treat victims of the plague but belongs to corporate forces that refuse to make the necessary drugs available at affordable prices. With Stack (also played by Monsef) betting Big Joe that he can't save Rae's life after she has acquired the plague, a moral battle ensues between a hero with good intentions and a medical establishment willing to run out the clock on his girlfriend's life.

Ian Merrigan as Big Joe in a scene from The Unfortunates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

There are numerous reasons why I didn't take to The Unfortunates with the same level of the enthusiasm as the Millennials seated around me.
  • Thanks to Katherine O'Neill's highly imaginative costumes, there were moments when it felt like I was watching a mash-up of Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon and Everyman (a Medieval morality play about the struggle between good and evil that was first performed in the 15th century).
  • Although the musical numbers were energetically staged, I found most of their lyrics to be appallingly trite.
  • For those with the luxury of being older, sadder, and wiser (especially people who survived the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the Republican chicanery it fostered), it's too late for another well-intentioned piece of agitprop theatre to bring back the dead or destroy the war machine.
  • To my mind, the strongest assets of the production were neither the music nor the script, but Erika Chong Shuch's superb choreography and an exceptional performance by Eddie Lopez as KoKo the Klown.
Eddie Lopez as Koko the Klown in The Unfortunates
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Other members of the ensemble included Lauren Hart as Roxy, Danielle Herbert as Madame, and Arthur Wise as a preacher. Performances of The Unfortunates continue at the Strand Theatre through April 10 (click here to order tickets).

No comments: