A whole section of seats has been removed at the Theatre at Jack's to make way for the Civil War as only American journalist and author Ambrose Bierce could envision it--and as only CityStage Ensemble would stage it. Bitten by a Snake is creator/director Laura Cuetara's compilation of five Bierce short stories. With a fine ensemble cast, Cuetara reinvestigates the War Between the States from the dark perspective of a man who was there, served with distinction, and came home having rejected the myth of glorious war.
Cuetara weaves Bierce's "One of the Missing," "Affair at Coulter's Notch," "Parker Addison," "Killed at Resaca" and "Son of the Gods" into a devastating anti-war drama meant to question the whole issue of heroism while recognizing genuine courage as it appears on the battlefield. It's only an hour long, yet it is a complicated evening of theater--poetic language in a nightmare landscape. Fortunately, it is also artistically coherent and sophisticated in technique. And it is never dull.
The four stories interlink in labyrinthine fashion. "One of the Missing" concerns a scout, Jerome Searing, who gets trapped in the rubble of a building shelled by the enemy. When he opens his eyes, unable to move his limbs, he sees the barrel of his gun pointed straight at his head and remembers that he had cocked the hair trigger just before the blast that trapped him. Eventually he must choose between a terrible slow death and a quick one. But fate loves its ironic jokes in Bierce, and the resolution of this story is bizarre indeed.
"Affair at Coulter's Notch" is the most shocking of the lot. Without giving away the story's horrific conclusion, let's just say it concerns the evil machinations of a general toward one of his own men--a Southerner who has joined the Yanks, presumably out of principle. The choice the poor man is forced to make is frightful, but in the context of the times and also in the context of war itself, it seems inevitable.
"Parker Addison" is the story of a Yankee spy captured in a Confederate camp. Witty and sophisticated, the spy laughs at death, jokes with his captors and appears to be fearless--until he learns that Johnny Reb will not wait till morning to hang him but will take him out and shoot him right away. The pathos is killing.
In "Killed at Resaca," a soldier returns a letter to its sender--a hard woman who wrote her lover that she could bear his death better than reports of his cowardice. But he had not been a coward. Much beloved by his fellows, constantly brave, the poor man was bitten by a snake--and that snake has both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. Finally, "Son of the Gods" segues into "Resaca" to produce a tale of courage that is truly awesome yet finally questionable: The hero rides to his death to urge on the troops. Is he magnificent or absurd--or both?
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The stage is draped in graceful gauze, which is adjusted with minimal movement by the actors to reset the scenes at will. Special sound effects are supplied by a percussionist at one end of the stage, and it's a daring touch--a rifle discharges with the single crash of a drum, the wind and rain and clamor of war are suggested with a plate of steel.
Cuetara's direction is crisp, and despite the abstract nature of the war zone, each of the characters has distinct human traits the actors must discover in brief bursts of dialogue. This is stimulating stuff. Guy Williams is particularly moving as the doomed Coulter, and Dan Hiester, ever clever at insinuating evil, brings a variety of human frailties into sharp focus, while Gina Wencel and Vanessa Johnson are laudable in a variety of gender-blind roles.
It may seem strange for CityStage to be presenting an anti-war drama at a time when the nation isn't technically at war (Bosnian company excluded). But Hollywood, after all, has never called a truce in its constant creation of brutal heroes. Bitten by a Snake works to subvert that comic-book approach to heroism. And for all its own dreamlike poetics, this theater piece remains true to the realities of war.
Bitten by a Snake, through June 2 at The Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, No. 101, 433-8082.