Thursday, April 3, 2003

From the stagefront lines: Maine theater folk react to war

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As life for nations on the world stage gets more complicated, and as we get more scenes from the Iraqi theater of military operations, it has become clear how much thespian language ties in to everyday life, how tightly linked life and theater are.

At Cocheco Stage Company, in Dover, New Hampshire, Michael Tobin reports that he got some calls to cancel reservations and others to confirm the show was still on, after war broke out. " One woman challenged me with, ‘How can you perform a show when we have men and women fighting a war, risking their lives to save ours?’ " Tobin says. His reply? " It’s a matter of emotional survival " in the face of non-stop war coverage and in-our-faces violence. Attendance was " near capacity " even when the war was just beginning, which he attributed to the audience’s need to " escape. "

Tobin and Michael Miclon, at the Oddfellow Theater in Buckfield, agree that they want to provide lighter shows just now. Tobin said he would have changed his scheduled show if it had been a heavy one, and Miclon said the theater’s philosophy is to bring people together for laughter and joy, even in hard times.

Actors, too, need their escape. " It’s nice to have something to do to stop sitting in front of the TV, " says Craig Bowden, who is rehearsing for the upcoming Mad Horse show Suburban Motel. He sees hope in this time of turmoil. " There’s going to be a big change in the way the world is because of these events, " he says. " Maybe people will get motivated to take advantage of the freedoms that we have. "

The freedoms to speak, to act, and to assemble are all crucial to a lively theater scene, and are constitutional guarantees that will only continue to exist if defended.

Bowden warns that the role of theater in that changed world may change, too. He took heart that the actors at the Academy Awards ceremony " were sort of humbled, brought back down to reality. " That perspective is important for actors, who both create and reflect reality while onstage. " There’s nothing more real than war, " Bowden says.

Two other Maine groups are going the other way, bringing the reality of war to the stage. Two Lights Theatre Ensemble has submitted La Promise to the New York International Fringe Festival. It was performed at the St. Lawrence in September, 2002, as a thematic anniversary piece for September 11. The question posed by French playwright Xavier Durringer is, " What is just, in times of war? "

It is the story of simple villagers who have their village destroyed by war, and their women raped and people killed. The war changes fighters, too. Zeck was a loving fiancĂ© before he went off to the front. When he returns, he is faced with his bride’s pregnancy, the child conceived by an enemy rapist. The play looks at the role of non-violence in war time and shows the complexities of victim and tormentor within one heart.

Without taking sides, La Promise explores what war means for humans, rather than the video game now on television, where we can see a missile-eye-view of a bunker containing, we are told " 200 Iraqi paramilitaries " moments before its destruction in a much-heralded US " successful strike. " Those 200 people inside, paramilitaries or not, have mothers and fathers, too.

It is to his forefathers that Frank Wicks has turned to create Soldier, Come Home!, a " readers’ theater " piece based on the letters between his great-grandfather, a Union soldier in the Civil War serving in Grant’s VI Army Corps, and his wife back home in Pennsylvania. Preserved in a shoebox, the letters open to a world of war closely paralleling today’s events.

Soldiers far from home sent letters regularly, supplying loved ones with fresh evidence that their father, brother, son or husband had survived another day. And yet the telegraph allowed instant communications of news, letting Wicks’s great-grandfather cheer for the success of the siege of Vicksburg just a day later, despite a distance of hundreds of miles.

Wicks had worked on Soldier off-and-on for 15 years, but was moved to finish it by the events of September 11. Now he wants to perform the play, which has had one-time productions at several locations and continues to tour as interest arises.

" I wish we could be doing this play immediately, " Wicks says. He wants the play to have a full run somewhere, but isn’t sure where or when that might happen.

Now could be the time. The letters have been distilled into the " nugget " of truth and meaning in each, making them more like the dense-but-brief emails now flashing from military bases in the Middle East to homes in Maine and throughout the nation.

Wicks said the letters offer a glimpse at the difficult answers to questions nobody should have to ask: " What do you write when you’re separated? What do you write when you start to worry? "