Blood and Gutless

There has been a great deal of excitement around The War Anthology, which began when Curious Theatre Company artistic director Chip Walton and assistant director Bonnie Metzgar commissioned several writers to create stage pieces based on war photographs. Anticipation grew when the theater announced the participation of Pulitzer winners Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks and Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America -- although Kushner's contribution had been published in The Nation days after the invasion of Iraq began and was not original to Curious. The press was told that The War Anthology would focus on America's wars. The project would be a multimedia presentation involving the efforts of photographers, videographers and musicians and would include ancillary events: Young people were encouraged to write about war, letters were solicited from veterans. Amid so much publicity, it was hard to guess whether the result would be revelatory or a mishmash.

The War Anthology, which premiered this past weekend, does include some evocative moments, and presumably the piece is still evolving. But in its present incarnation, the show doesn't stand up as either an evening of theater or a trenchant commentary. There's an odd lifelessness to it. It has no throughline, no rhythm or momentum, no center, no integrating concept; you can't tell why elements fall where they do. Why this speech here rather than there? Why this song following that playlet? Historical events aren't presented chronologically, which would be okay except that the pieces don't cluster around specific themes, either. Incongruity can be an artistic virtue; concepts, words and images flung together in ways that seem random can eventually make some kind of pattern, but that doesn't happen here.

America was born out of the slaughter of the native population, the struggle for independence from colonial England and the horror of civil war. But within living memory, Americans have no experience of war fought on home soil, and no way of understanding what so much of the rest of the world has suffered -- living under bombardment, hiding at night, hunger, cold, displacement, loss, the constant threat of random violence. Americans have fought overseas during the last century for various reasons -- some noble, some misguided, some immoral. (Key questions about the uses of war and whether it can ever be justified don't make much of an appearance in this production.) What we understand best is the impact of war on our soldiers and their families; it's no accident that the most penetrating writing on war has come from the men and women who experienced it. As a result, some of the pieces in The War Anthology feel innocent, detached, as if the authors have taken the ideas for them from history books, movie and television plots, or someone else's reminiscences.

The best segment is Kushner's "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," in which Laura Bush reads to a group of dead Iraqi children. As played by Dee Covington, she's funny and ridiculous, but she's not a monster. Referring to Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, she wrestles in her own absurdly reductive way with the question of guilt -- her guilt, her husband's -- as she tries to explain to the children that their deaths were necessary, yet she comes close to breaking down as she acknowledges that "...only a really shitty, shitty person who isn't a real person but only seems to be but is actually an animal forgives themselves for...the death of children." There's a longing for redemption here as strong as the inability to receive it. It's a wonderful piece, and well-delivered by Dee Covington, although the director's decision to break it into two parts -- with a cheery "to be continued" sign flashing on the back wall -- is inexplicable.

Paula Vogel's "The Closest I've Been to War," a description of a discovery made by her dying brother, is also effective, and would be more so delivered without the contrapuntal recitation of snatches of Walt Whitman -- though the poetry is touching, too. "Bully Composition," by Will Eno, focuses on a photograph of soldiers in the Spanish-American War and asks profound questions about time, history and mortality under the guise of humor, although the comedy is a little overplayed. I like the raw power of the "by any means necessary speech," especially as delivered by Tyee Tilghman, and also the video segment showing Manuel R. Roybal talking about his flight to Vietnam as a GI.

But there are many things in this odd assemblage that don't work. In "Rain of Ruin," a love affair between a Mexican-American woman and a Japanese man frames questions about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as two hibakusha women wander in the background. The love story seems to trivialize the horror of the bombs, and the ghostly women seem...I hate to say it, but a bit silly. As does the noble, silent ghost of Chief Black Kettle, survivor of the Sand Creek massacre, stalking through another segment. I don't understand the function of the dance between Hitler and Eva Braun in "Making Whoopee," and the sentimentality of "Weird Water" leaves me cold. Part of the problem may be that the film and photographs so essential to this piece are fuzzy and hard to decipher.

Somehow, I expect more urgency in a production about war. Suzan-Lori Parks offers a decent-enough song called "Welcome Home," about veterans returning home limbless or in a box; the theme reminds me a little of the Irish folk song on which the cheery Civil War song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" is based. But when I compare the two, I can see what's missing from The War Anthology:

I'm happy for to see ye home, hurroo, hurroo
I'm happy for to see ye home, hurroo, hurroo
I'm happy for to see ye home
All from the island of Sulloon
So low in flesh, so high in bone
Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye.

Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg
Ye're an armless, boneless, chickenless egg
Ye'll have to put with a bowl out to beg
Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye. /i>

They're rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They're rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They're rolling out the guns again
But they never will take our sons again
No they never will take our sons again
Johnny I'm swearing to ye.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman