Apocalypse Now and Then
In staging The War Plays, Promethean Theatre is trying to open a dialogue about the causes of war and its horrors. This is a good time for such a dialogue. Neoconservative ex-CIA director James Woolsey recently told an enthusiastic Denver audience that in conquering Iraq, the United States has won only the first battle of the fourth world war (the Cold War having been the third). And a couple of weeks ago, both houses of Congress authorized research on small nuclear weapons, increasing the likelihood of a new arms race. But though Promethean has mounted a sincere and courageous production, playwright Edward Bond, one of the angry young writers of England's iconoclastic '60s, may not be the best spokesman. The War Plays contain genuine anguish, singular images and some strikingly beautiful language, but they're also self-righteous, preachy, repetitive and somehow simultaneously cryptic and windy. Bond's ideas on class, consumerism, violence and inequality remain valid, but the words in which he expresses them sound dated, and his desire to shock is too transparent.
Both of the plays explore a post-apocalyptic world. In the first, Red, Black and Ignorant, a baby is destroyed in his mother's womb by a nuclear strike. Played by Josh Hartwell with rattling breath, burned and blackened skin, and an odd splay-footed walk, this child imagines himself growing up. He sees himself on the school playground learning the meaning of revenge (there's some half-baked moralizing here); he imagines marrying and eventually having a son of his own. This son is ordered to kill someone -- anyone -- to help avert famine; he kills his father.
The Tin Can People strikes me as a far better piece of dramaturgy. We're again in that the bleak, end-of-time, Waiting for Godot-like world, with a bent tree and piles of bricks and rubble (the effective set design is by Darren Goad). A woman talks about the mass dying that followed a nuclear strike. A man stumbles on, talking to himself, mingling sense and nonsense. He's a survivor of the catastrophe who has been alone and starving for seventeen years. He encounters another survivor, a woman, who offers him a tin of food. She reveals that she's one of a small group that has recovered millions of cans of edibles and made a kind of sterile, crippled paradise for themselves. Because they lack nothing, they live together in peace. But the entrance of the new man into the tribe creates turmoil. Members start dying of an unknown disease, and he is blamed for it. The survivors float all kinds of bizarre theories about the origin of the illness and ways to avoid it. In a hilarious scene, two of the women decide that they can stay healthy if they keep moving and eating, and proceed to do just that. A man begins hammering a rod into a spear so that he can kill the carrier of the plague: "We need a missile that will hit the target the first time and work." The oddly bucolic ending seems to be a fantasy (or a fantasy within a fantasy) of some kind.
Occasionally, you can see the reason for Bond's initial acclaim. There are some brilliant monologues here: the speech about how we prepare our homes and our world for children that begins the first play; the woman's description of the mass death she witnessed in the second; the wandering man's rhapsody about sitting beside a skull and giving it imaginary life. But why does one character so often tell another things that the second must already know? Bond can't ever let anything be. He has to repeat, underline, exhort. Bones are like picture frames, like broken traps, like.... Some of the lines sound impressive when you first hear them: "My body's spasm crushed the child"; "Our pulses are like watches ticking on dead people's wrists"; "I know you're people because you're corpse-shaped." But those shapely, sonorous rhythms become less and less impressive the more you think about them. Worst of all, Bond's writing lacks all sense of perspective and is completely devoid of irony.
Joel Harmon's direction is clean, and the members of the company give good performances. Melanie Moseley is very strong; she has the courage to be simple, grotesque or funny as the script requires. Josh Hartwell gives a focused performance as the charred Monster of the first play, and Darren Goad brings dancerly movement and an otherworldly quality to the wandering lost soul of the second. I particularly liked Jocelyn Fultz in this play, too, as the bright, clinging-to-hope First Woman.
I'm not sure what role theater can have in shaping public dialogue in the United States. There are countries where artists are seen as visionaries, musicians help foment revolution and a dissident playwright can become president. But here art is generally seen as either a commodity or some sort of effete decoration. And what little power a small theater in Denver might have to change thought patterns, to empower or provoke isn't in evidence in The War Plays. It's a shame, because despite everything, some of the words resonate -- most of all this line, delivered squarely to the audience: "You must create justice."
Promethean Theatre Company is closing its doors and leaving Denver when the run of The War Plays is over. Let's hope someone picks up the torch.
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