D.C. playhouse make art about conflict—for theater audiences, and for the troops

Magic Bullets: Bengal Tiger mixed war with the supernatural.

“This is a play about the first invasion of Afghanistan, right?” my friend Ryan asked as we took our seats at Sidney Harman Hall one Friday in late September. “The one in the 19th century?”

Spotlights rotated above us. Bagpipes blared. A projection of the Scottish flag floated on the stage. “Um, no,” I said. “It’s the more recent invasion. The Osama bin Laden one.” For a second he looked so uneasy I feared he might bolt, which would have been awkward, since were sitting in the front row.

For the second consecutive year, the National Theatre of Scotland had brought its acclaimed touring production of the war drama Black Watch to Washington. The first time around, I had been impressed with the play’s visceral, innovative theatrics, and enjoyed interviewing the young Scotsmen who portrayed a real-life regiment of soldiers from a poor Scottish mining town. The actors peppered me with questions like, “I’m 19. How come I can’t drink here?” And, “Why are American girls so offended by the c-word?”

So my assignment made it difficult to take Black Watch seriously as a dramatization of war. It took seeing it a second time, seated next to a former British soldier, for me to get properly sucker-punched in the stomach.

This time, when the bodies dangled from the rafters, I felt like I had just experienced an I.E.D. Members of the press typically don’t join in standing ovations, but what could I do when the guy I brought with me—the one who nearly left the theater—leapt to his feet?

We ended up shutting down the bar at Marvin that night. Over several rounds of whiskey and Stella, I learned that Ryan, a new neighbor, was a veteran of the British Army’s 7 Rifles regiment. His best friend lost both legs in Afghanistan. In London bars, they would tell girls he lost them in a shark attack. Still, Black Watch made Ryan go misty-eyed.

Far Wars: Black Watch brought the Iraq war home.

Before 2012 was over, I saw two more plays that were written as requiems for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at Round House Theatre and Christopher Shinn’s Dying City at Signature. I tried to watch them not through the eyes of a liberal-leaning theatergoer but as someone who might, like my neighbor, identify closely with the military.

Yet when it comes to war, playwrights face a paradox: How do you write a play about Iraq and Afghanistan that is relevant to members of the military community, but still palatable to a theater’s core audiences, who presumably don’t tie yellow ribbons around the old oak tree?

It’s not easy. And yet, given the Washington area’s large numbers of military personnel and contractors, finding that kind of balance makes sense. Besides Shakespeare, this year four other local theaters offered productions that attempted to straddle that imaginary line of demarcation.

In January, Studio Theatre hosted the D.C. premiere of Donald Margulies’ drama that delves into the ethics of war reporting, Time Stands Still—not a play about soldiers, but about a pair of journalists who document their deaths. Shinn’s Dying City also took a kind of distancing approach: Background exposition makes clear that the male protagonist only joined the Army because an ROTC scholarship was his ticket to Harvard, and he planned to write a dissertation on Faulkner once his commitment to Uncle Sam was through. Both plays look at how life in the war zone affects homefront relationships, but focus on characters who feel more familiar to urban theatergoers than say, enlisted troops from a mining town in West Virginia.

Everyday G.I.s are the stars, however, in Joseph’s Bengal Tiger, which is set in Iraq. In Round House’s production, local actors Danny Gavigan and Felipe Cabezas played soldiers assigned to guard the captive big cats after Saddam Hussein’s fall, and Joseph was careful to convey that his foul-mouthed antiheroes were lower-class guys without a lot of career options. The play was brutally real in its portrayal of violence and PTSD. But the ghosts of a talking tiger and Hussein’s sons prowled the stage, and to be truly bowled over by the show—which I was—required a tolerance for magical realism.

Synetic was the only theater to develop an Iraq war show from scratch—well, make that a show set in an unnamed country resembling recent Iraq. Paata Tsikurishvili and Ben Cunis interviewed many armed services members as they wrote the script, and, like Signature, offered discounts in hopes of luring military personnel to a theater conveniently located in Northern Virginia. The commitment to authenticity paid off in scenes depicting daily life of the troops, but the “insurgents” the soldiers fought onstage were portrayed as villainous, ethnically ambiguous elves. The play also suffered from some structural issues, and relied heavily on projected film and graphics. I took another neighbor—a 23-year-old basement-dweller who loves video games—with me to see Home of the Soldier. He had a great time. I was less impressed.

None of these plays manage the barbed wire balancing act as carefully as Black Watch. It uses projections too, but only for atmospherics. The carnage is all live, onstage, but you never see the enemy, just the dead bodies their I.E.D.s leave behind.

That night at Marvin, I didn’t have to ask Ryan about Black Watch’s authenticity; he was gushing about it. A few lines were Americanized, he said, but otherwise everything was totally believable. Everything except a frank, penultimate conversation between a commanding officer and a young soldier declining a promotion to stay in the regiment.

“It takes 300 years to build an army that’s admired and respected around the world. But it only takes three years pissing about in the desert in the biggest western foreign policy disaster ever to fuck it up completely,” the officer says.

Those words would never be spoken aloud, in uniform. But could a bitter and heartbroken commanding officer come to that conclusion, and could a soldier hear those words onstage, then stand and applaud? Yes. And in the theater of warfare, that’s the reality that matters.

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