Monday, June 6, 2011

In The Aftermath of War

Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, 1972's The Poseidon Adventure gave Hollywood a new template to exploit: the star-studded disaster epic. Singer/songwriter Maureen McGovern won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for her contribution to the film.  Written as a love song, the lyrics to "The Morning After" read as follows:
"There's got to be a morning after
If we can hold on through the night.
We have a chance to find the sunshine
Let's keep on looking for the light.

Oh, can't you see the morning after?
It's waiting right outside the storm.
Why don't we cross the bridge together
And find a place that's safe and warm?

It's not too late, we should be giving
Only with love can we climb
It's not too late, not while we're living
Let's put our hands out in time.

There's got to be a morning after
We're moving closer to the shore
I know we'll be there by tomorrow.
And we'll escape the darkness,
We won't be searching anymore."
Optimism can be so sweet, especially in the face of looming disaster. However, you don't need a capsized ocean liner to realize that your time on this earth may be running out. Whether trapped in the rubble of a massive Earthquake or The Towering Inferno, a person's life can flash before him in the briefest of moments.

There's a reason why so many people claim that war is hell. Often, the results become painfully visible when soldiers return home from the battlefield bruised, battered, and barely functioning. Two Bay area theatre companies are currently offering intense productions of dramas about the aftermath of war.

Although written more than 400 years apart, each play depicts a returning hero's life as a far cry from the enthralling adventures of action heroes that are relentlessly marketed to young men. Instead, they give audiences a painful glimpse into the destruction, corruption, confusion, and depression that lie in the wake of combat. While there may be a morning after, you can bet good money that there won't be a happy ending.

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Three years ago, when her play received its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare FestivalJulie Marie Myatt explained that:
"I began writing Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter in 2006, with several questions in mind: questions that I still have, that have not been answered as we premiere this play in February of 2008. As a nation at war, how are we treating our returning veterans? Are we ready for the first generation of women veterans wounded and maimed by combat? What is our responsibility, as citizens, to those who are serving in this war; a war that many feel was a mistake from the start, that has been costly, poorly planned, a waste of both our human and financial resources and which has no end in sight? What are we to DO about it, as individuals, as citizens, that goes beyond politics that might give some sort of comfort or aid or understanding to those who have suffered and sacrificed themselves for this war?  I feel that this play is a portrait and a song of these questions. It is a story of a few people trying to figure out, in their way, how to make one woman's return home more human and welcome and loving, so that she can begin to return to herself, and to her children. It is my humble attempt, as a playwright, to give a voice to the warrior where I feel silence has become the accepted means of communication between our nation and our warriors. I fear that silence is strangling us."

Omoze Idehenre as Jenny Sutter (Photo by: Robert J. Schroeder)

Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter is currently receiving its Bay area premiere from Oakland's TheatreFIRST in a production directed by Domenique Lozano. It is a strange play which, despite occasional moments of humor, shows what happens when a wounded warrior who is confused, exhausted, and showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, gets stuck in a desert hellhole in Southern California while trying to return home to her family in Barstow.

Much to her bewilderment, Jenny Sutter (Omoze Idehenre) finds herself stuck in Slab City, a bleak home to squatters and owners of recreational vehicles near what remains of Camp Dunlap in a portion of the Colorado Desert. The locals she meets are a pretty sorry lot.
  • Hugo (Joe Westlack) is the surly sentry at the local bus station who wants more information out of Jenny Sutter than she has any intention of sharing.
  • Donald (Jon Tracy) is the local spoilsport, a clueless cynic who thinks that the earrings he gives Jenny Sutter after scaring the living daylights out of her entitles him to a kiss.
  • Lou (Nancy Carlin) is a well-meaning woman who, upon learning that Jenny Sutter has just returned home from the Iraq War decides to throw a welcome home party for the dazed and confused veteran.
  • Buddy (Brett David Williams) is Lou's boyfriend, a would-be preacher who got his certification on the Internet for $10 and now holds random sermons whenever he can find a captive audience.
  • Cheryl Karol Strempke) is a friend of Lou's with a car and a conscience.

Lou (Nancy Carlin) and Buddy (Brett David Williams) in
Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter (Photo by: Matt Haber)

While Myatt's drama tries to shed some light on Jenny's condition, for large segments of the evening the actor playing Jenny must pretend to be sleeping while onstage (this is a pretty thankless role). It doesn't take long for the audience to realize that Jenny Sutter isn't the only character in this play who belongs to the walking wounded. With the exception of Cheryl, none of these characters stands much chance of surviving modern civilization. Even when the sweetest parts of their souls emerge, they seem ridiculously doomed.

Jenny Sutter (Omoze Idehenre) and Donald (Jon Tracy) share an
awkward moment of intimacy in  TheatreFIRST's production
of Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter (Photo by: Matt Haber)

One might think that Jenny and Lou would be the most interesting roles in Myatt's play, but it is the performances of Jon Tracy (Donald) and Brett David Williams (Buddy) as two hapless and hopeless men that leave the deepest impressions.

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Over in Orinda, the California Shakespeare Theater managed to get through the opening night of its 2011 season without being washed out by potential downpours. Presenting William Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, for the first time in its 38-year history, the company did itself proud with a production that lent a bit of class to the perverts, rapists, and sadists who move the plot along.

Directed by Joel Sass (with some wonderful sound design work by Andre Pluess), the Calshakes production starred James Carpenter as the victorious warrior whose benevolence upon his triumphant return home quickly leads to the ruination of his family.

James Carpenter as Titus Andronicus (photo by: Kevin Berne)

Using Emily Greene's formidable unit set and Paloma Young's costume designs, the Calshakes cast went about its gruesome business with a grisly determination. Men were decapitated, women raped, tongues cut out, and hands chopped off a sense of gleeful depravity. As the sons of the evil Queen Tamora (Stacy Ross), Chad Deverman (Demetrius) and David Mendelsohn (Chiron) revelled in their bloodthirsty degenerate exploits. The loathsome Moor (Shawn Hamilton) remained unrepentant to the play's bitter end.

Once the heads of Demetrius and Chiron had been ground up and baked into a giant meat pie (a scene which brought back fond memories of 1978's Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe?), their remains were fed to their mother and evil stepfather, Saturninus (Rob Campbell). Others in the cast included Dan Hiatt as Titus' brother, Marcus, and Anna Bullard as Titus's daughter, Lavinia. Nicholas Pelczar scored strongly with the audience, doubling as a clown and the adult Lucius.

Hardly anyone was left standing. Nor did anyone offer to sing an encore.

With slasher films drawing such huge audiences, it's surprising that so few companies stage Titus Andronicus. Here's a rare opportunity to add Titus Andronicus to the list of plays that you've seen before you kick the bucket. Performances continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre through June 26 (you can order tickets here).

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