Thursday, February 20, 2003

Deal with Pvt. Wars: Then look further afield

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Its Friday opening performance put off by frozen pipes, Pvt. Wars managed to draw a small crowd of about 20 people Saturday night, hours after a worldwide peace rally’s local event ended in a super-cooled Monument Square. Rather than chanting anti-Bush slogans or expressing concern about the well-being of the people of Iraq, however, the Cast — a grassroots theater company made up of three actors who rope their friends into lighting and stage managing — takes a look at war from the other end, through the lens of a Vietnam-era Army hospital. It is a reminder of how war affects people, distills them to their most basic characteristics, and of how humor may yet save us all.

Beautifully acted, hilariously funny, and backed by well selected music from the 1970s, Pvt. Wars deserves to fill the house at the St. Lawrence. It shows us the best we have to hope for if war does break out: If our military casualties have the resilience and humanity of these three characters, our world will get on fine.

Woodruff Gately (David A. Currier) is a shell-shocked simpleton with a good heart, determined to fix a broken radio, no matter how many working radios he must steal and dismantle to do it. He is able to befriend Natwick (J.P. Guimont), a foppish Long Island boy who joined the Army to continue, it seems, his trend of failures begun while he was growing up. Natwick’s physical injuries are hidden from view, but his psychological ones are very visible. Fortunately, actor Guimont’s senses of irony, delivery, and comedic timing were untouched by Natwick’s war.

Their relationship is complicated and enhanced by Silvio (Craig Bowden), who becomes a sort of misfit squad leader for the trio. It is Silvio who drives the dialogue, bringing up wide-ranging topics based primarily on his own fears of inadequacy now that he has had his testicles and penis blown off by shrapnel.

Rather than dealing with this injury in a depressing way, dwelling on the message the gods are sending him, Silvio chooses to take a more Kramer-type approach, concerned with how underwear feels and its effects on sperm motility.

Conversations between the three are awkward at first, as they adjust to their situations and become friends. As the play develops, they move on into learning more about each other and beginning to prepare for a return to the world.

There is both quiet and agitation on the stage, with between-scenes blackouts used not as a way for actors to move around unseen, but as a time for sound itself to become the performance. Hospital announcements, Natwick’s voiced letters home — clearly covering the truth of his crisis to assuage his parents’ worries — and period music break up the play’s moments and provide reminders that there is a world outside the hospital, and one outside the theater as well.

The actors are all very strong: Currier is bursting with Gately’s dynamic energy and goodwill; Bowden coils, springs, and relaxes like a comic Tarzan, fixing on an idea, ensnaring it and then finding it has escaped; and Guimont’s affected mannerisms and self-assured superiority mask his character’s vulnerabilities as well as any real Long Island boy could. Each has a sense of moment, timing, and expression, drawing out each of the play’s laughs naturally from the audience.

The characters are also well crafted in the writing and fully explored by the actors. Mannerisms, accents, and blocking all build onto the powerful base of the play’s introspection, showing us visually what we can also hear and feel going on in the characters’ lives.

And though it may seem a bit cliché to have the simplest man also be the deepest, Gately, who senses the true meaning of Longfellow’s epic "The Song of Hiawatha," also sees through the fog into the reality of the world outside the hospital, and into which our political leaders could stand to peer. We all have enough to deal with on our own, he says, "And if everybody would fight their own private wars, things would be all right. But, no, people have to stick their noses into other people’s wars."

The humor reigns supreme, however, which, possibly more than politics, is why the three chose the play for production. Looking for three-man shows, they found Pvt. Wars and "couldn’t stop laughing," Guimont says.

Laughter is a powerful weapon of war and tool of healing. Natwick’s admission of cowardice and thoughts of suicide is powerful, as he explains to Gately that a suicide threat is a cry for help. Gately’s replying offer of a razor blade to "help" Natwick, who shaves electric and has no blade, is the ironic punch line. And Silvio’s motivational tactic of radio-parts theft adds a darker, but still funny, aspect to the show, forcing us again to see beyond initial purposes and into our own hidden agendas.

Pvt. Wars
By James McLure. Produced by the Cast. With Craig Bowden, David A. Currier, and J.P. Guimont. At St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, through March 9. Call (207) 775-5568.