Review: Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland)

  
  

An intense, poignant examination of harsh reality of war

  
  

Stuart Martin (Nabsy) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

  
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and National Theatre of Scotland present
   
Black Watch
  
Written by Gregory Burke
Directed by John Tiffany
at Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway (map)
through April 10  | 
tickets: $38-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Theater and war are two of humanity’s oldest institutions, but rarely do the two come together with as much emotional force as playwright Gregory Burke’s Black Watch. In the gym of the Broadway Armory, the soldiers of Scotland’s senior infantry regiment Black Watch relive their time in Iraq as a writer interviews them about their experiences in the Middle East. Probing the emotional and mental effects of war on the soldiers, Burke’s script is a deeply powerful look at the history of the Scottish regiment, and captures all the tension, danger, and ennui of their recent campaign in Iraq. Enemy combat is rarely seen, with the play focusing on the conflicts amongst the troops and within the soldiers’ minds, creating a brutally honest portrayal of the horrors of war. Incorporating music, movement, and video, director John Tiffany creates a visceral, multi-sensory experience that will shake audience members to their core, and not just because of the booming sound system. Black Watch is the type of play that shows the transcendent, transformative power of theater, and kudos to Chicago Shakespeare for bringing this play to our city.

Scott Fletcher (Kenzie) and Jamie Quinn (Fraz) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.Black Watch begins with six soldiers awaiting the arrival of a female writer in a pub, disappointed to learn that they will be interviewed by a male writer (Paul Higgins), who becomes the target of their especially harsh brand of derogatory humor. Once the men settle down, they begin to share their memories, switching into their army fatigues and Tam o’Shanters with the characteristic red hackle as the play moves from the bar to the battlefield. Beyond showing the day-to-day trials of the division, Burke provides political and historical context throughout the play, and gives the play an epic scope that still retains a profoundly human element in the script.

The war in Iraq remains a hot-button issue in the U.S., and a press conference between two conflicting politicians is a familiar sight to anyone that watched the presidential debates of the 2004 and 2008 elections. Despite the Scottish dialects and setting, it is easy to relate to Burke’s script, and that connection is what makes Black Watch such a powerful production. The history of the Black Watch regiment is shown through a fantastic sequence where Private Cammy (Jack Lowden) is stripped down and outfitted in the various uniforms of the regiment as he describes their past. The flawless execution of the technically difficult scene is representative of the production as a whole. Lowden is flipped, twisted, and turned by his colleagues as they dress him in the black kilt of the original Black Watch, then continue to strip and redress him until he is wearing the contemporary uniform. Their precision and speed is impressive, and by the end of the scene Lowden has given the most visually dynamic history lesson I’ve ever had the experience of sitting through.

Black Watch doesn’t follow a traditional plot structure, but rather gives short, concentrated looks at the soldiers’ Iraq experiences that are broken up by abstract movement sequences that build on the thematic themes of the piece. The soldiers’ opinions of American soldiers, suicide terrorism, and the reasons they fight (porn and petrol, of course) are depicted with truth and humor, with Burke especially succeeding in bringing the latter to the war-heightened drama. This is a very funny play, and the comedy is often offensive and crude, but these are soldiers on the front lines in the Middle East. Any chance to see them smile is appreciated. The men tell jokes, fantasize about the take-out they’ll eat when they get home, and read half-paperbacks of “Laurence of Arabia”, all to make the desert bearable. The older men of the unit, Officer (Ian Pirie) and Sergeant (Higgins), don’t share their subordinates’ naïve ability to find joy in the bleak environment, and they serve as the catalysts for the production’s movement sequences, which reveal the emotional undercurrents of the daily routines.

Cameron Barnes (Macca) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

In the play’s most powerful moment, after Officer recites an e-mail sent to his wife, a soldier enters, sorting through a stack of envelopes, looking for the one addressed to him. As he opens the letter, he stops, and another soldier enters, takes the stack, and repeats. One by one each member of Black Watch finds the letter addressed to him, stops, reads, and then begins an intricate movement cycle that is full of delicate affection but teeming with a sad sense of longing. It must be seen to truly feel its emotional power, but the image of the ten men, built up as pillars of masculinity up to this point, engaging in a shared moment of tender unity is hauntingly beautiful, especially when some of them will never see the faces belonging to those letters again. Associate director of movement Steven Hoggett incorporates elements of modern dance to make this scene especially gentle, and he later combines dance with fight choreography to portray a set of emotions on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

When a fight breaks out between Private Granty (Richard Rankin) and new recruit Kenzie (Scott Fletcher) in the back of the wagon, Sergeant has the two settle their dispute in a ten second brawl. The clock counts down on the video screens, hitting Paul Higgins (Writer/Sergeant) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.zero but restarting as the fighting continues, spreading through the other soldiers of the regiment like a virus. The choreography is extremely physical and the actors perform impeccably, building in intensity until the clock finally strikes blood red, an ominous warning of tragedy to come. After this point the soldiers no longer wear street clothes when speaking to Writer, and their army uniforms blur the lines of past and present. These are the moments when the PTSD comes out, when the violent outbursts and crippling depression happen. These are the symptoms of the disease called war, and, as Officer says, “For some of us, it’s in the blood.”

Black Watch ends with the soldiers marching in a parade of regimental solidarity backed by thunderous drums and bagpipes, and with the intense echo of the Broadway Armory, the volume reaches rock concert levels. As the music grows louder they march across the stage, helping any fallen men back to their feet, always returning to two lines of five soldier arms-width apart,. Their exactness in formation makes physical the strong emotional bonds built over the course of the play, and the roar of the music vibrates through the floor and into the crowd. The pride of the troop is now the pride of an audience, a brotherhood of theatergoers united by one magnificent production.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Cast of the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

All photos by Manuel Harlan

        
        

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Review: Man from Nebraska (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

Broad collection of fervent scenes doesn’t quite make a whole

  
  

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Sam Perry (Bud)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Man From Nebraska
 
Written by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Andrew Jessop
at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre has pulled off wonders within the confines of its black box theater space, such as morphing into a cheerfully bland New York hotel lobby with Lobby Hero (our review ★★★½) or, for their production of The Pillowman (review ★★), a claustrophobic interrogation room adjoined by macabre mini-theaters at both ends. But they may have bit off more than they can chew staging Tracy Letts’ 2003 play Man From Nebraska. Stephen H. Carmody’s set design does all it can with movable stages that serve for car and hotel scenes; Christopher Burpee’s lighting design can be impressively transformative at the right moments; Andrew Jessop’s video provides sly and suggestive white noise when the television becomes an extra character in a scene. Still, the play’s stop-and-start shifts are hell for any director to draw a cohesive arc from. Though Jessop’s direction Adrian Snow (Tamyra), Andrew J. Pond (Harry), Chuck Spencer (Ken)crafts gorgeous, singular jewels with each theatrical moment, it cannot ameliorate the overriding fragmentary nature of Letts’ writing, which seems more relevant for the screen than the stage.

Only one abiding element comes close to binding the production—Chuck Spencer’s performance, authentic to the bones, as Ken Carpenter, a man who awakens in the middle of the night to question everything he once held true. Jan Ellen Graves provides quiet backup as Ken’s sorely tested helpmeet, Nancy, but the show remains Spencer’s in every way. One could consider his portrayal of Ken as the bookend to his 2009 triumph as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (review). He seems born to play the quintessential life of quiet desperation.

The opening scenes do everything to depict Ken and Nancy’s somnambulant routines and corn-fed complacency, right down to silently shared dinners over chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes. But then Ken’s midnight crisis of faith hits hard and stands in abrupt, violent contrast to everything that’s gone before. Ken, Baptist born and raised, realizes to his horror that he does not believe in God–Spenser successfully sells every raw moment of Ken’s lifetime of belief pulled out from underneath him.

The rest of the play Ken searches for what he truly believes in; how various people respond to his earnest and heartfelt quest eventually reflects more on them than the protagonist. Small theatrical moments shine with humor, veracity, warm simplicity, yet sometimes we are never really far from a sharp Lettsian edge. Chuck Spencer (Ken), Marssie Mencotti (Cammie)Reverend Todd (Michael Sherwin) proves to be as cheerfully vapid and materialistic a clergyman as Satan could ever send to test the faithful, yet it is on his recommendation that Ken take a vacation that shapes his quest. Equally, daughter Ashley (Julie Dahlinger) seems too caught up in the things of this world to ever understand her father’s driven personal inquiry. In worldly company, Ken seems like an oddity—the guy who cares too much about spiritual matters that everyone else has let go of long ago.

Spencer is up to giving a performance that makes Ken more than an accidental tourist in the realms of moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, the script itself doesn’t plumb the depths of Ken’s emotional or spiritual quest but leaves a lot of it inchoate. Furthermore, the play’s fragmentary nature makes it difficult to tie in Ken’s search for truth with what is going on with Nancy at home. So many actors give strong and mature performances, it’s a shame that the whole struggles to gel. It’s worth it just to go and view the production as an assortment of excellent scenes in the hands of sure and capable craftsmen. Certainly, Ken and Nancy’s powerful reunion will stays long after the show is over. But, all in all, we have to accept Man From Nebraska as a lesser work of Chicago’s currently most successful playwright.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
  

Man From Nebraska continues through April 24th at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 on Thursdays, $27 on Fridays and Sundays, and $30 on Saturdays, and can be bought online or by calling 773-728-7529.  Reserve seats by e-mailing reserve@redtwist.org.

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy), Chuck Spencer (Ken)

Jane deLaubenfels (Pat), Chuck Spencer (Ken) Chuck Spencer (Ken), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy)
  

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