22 April 2007

Something from my other (writing) life

Hey everyone!

I don't often do this, but I wanted to post a story I wrote for this week's weekly edition of Variety. I'm really pleased with how it turned out, and I thought it was worth sharing.

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Posted: Fri., Apr. 20, 2007, 1:53pm PT

'Naked' festival exposes face of war

Mark Blankenship: Critic's Notebook

NEW YORK -- What if, just for a little while, people stopped being angry about the war? What else would they feel?

Anger has dominated much of our cultural discourse about the strife in Iraq, from talking heads bellowing on cable news to pop stars like Eminem recording tirades. Fury has steered the theater, too, whether it's in the barbed satire of musicals like "Bush Is Bad" or the intellectual protest of David Hare's "Stuff Happens."

But while those sentiments are necessary, there are other responses to war that deserve exploration. With largely exceptional results, "Armed and Naked," an Iraq-minded festival of 14 short plays and four short films that wrapped April 22 and was organized by cutting-edge Off Broadway company Naked Angels, evoked the feelings that can live next to anger in the nation's heart.

The most striking plays trafficked in sorrow. Instead of pushing a political agenda or demanding a partisan allegiance from the audience, they explored how war devastates all Americans, no matter if their states are red or blue.

Enough pieces took this humanistic stance to form a kind of coalition, inviting us to step back from our idiosyncratic beliefs and grieve together over what's happening to our soldiers and our families. Over two weeks, the effect was harrowingly cathartic.

That impact points to the quality of the festival's work. While some of the pieces founder, most exhibit deep critical thinking and careful attention to craft.

Writers like Theresa Rebeck, Itamar Moses and Deirdre O'Connor make particularly good use of the short play format. Each scribe takes an everyday image -- playing cards, interpreting foreign speech, packing for a trip -- and develops it into a piercing metaphor. Delivered in 15 minutes or less, their insights are as taut as they are surprising.

With "Amici, ascoltate," Warren Leight returns from a long sojourn in television (on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent") to create a miniature epic. Without a single wasted word, he introduces three generations of a military family as described by Tony (Tony Campisi), a man whose mother almost shot him in the hand to keep him from going to Vietnam.

In a stellar coup de theatre, Leight lets Tony inherit his mother's fear by picking up her gun and carrying it, in one gesture, into the present day, when his own son is about to leave for Iraq. As Tony makes a silent, crucial decision, the pistol becomes more than a prop, representing any family thatloves its country but wants to keep its children alive.

Shifting meanings also invigorate "Myrtle Beach," a poetic and unsettling mediation by fest co-producer Dan Klores. The play is a conversation between the head (Yul Vasquez) and body (David Deblinger) of a solider who has been blown up.

At first, there's a dreamy calm as the two body parts -- inventively costumed by Jessica Wegener -- discover each other in the rubble. Ultimately, though, the playlet erupts into keening for the innocent man who was destroyed. The force of its imagery almost terrifies.

"Myrtle Beach" is particularly gratifying theater because it couldn't work as a film. The same is true of Will Eno's "Bully Composition," which invites the audience to imagine itself as a platoon of soldiers posing for a wartime portrait. A major question -- posed by Thomas Jay Ryan and Elizabeth Marvel, playing a photographer and his assistant -- is whether we're posing before a day of battle or just after we've returned. Wouldn't our expressions be pinched and fearful either way?

Eno asks this question so elegantly, couching it in a story about an ambiguous photo from the Spanish-American War, that he makes a moral point without preaching. If we examine our current standing in the war, he suggests, we have no way of knowing if we're at the end of the nightmare or the beginning. Capturing the image of our current historical moment means framing worried, uncertain faces.

Eno's play creates a reverential sadness. The audience is asked to become a congregation, considering its own mortality and the fates of all anonymous soldiers. But there's something liberating in that communion, in sensing how much we can empathize with fighters we'll never know.

A similar empathy floods Louis Cancelmi's "President and Man." But before it was even seen, the media and several conservative groups prematurely announced the play was a fantasy about assassinating George W. Bush. That sounds juicily inflammatory, but it isn't Cancelmi's intention.

To be sure, a nameless president (Chris Sarandon) gets killed in his bedroom by an aide (Brandon Miller), but Republicans might be surprised to learn the commander in chief is portrayed in a sympathetic light. He spends most of the play telling the first lady (Lizbeth Mackay) how much he loves and wants to help his people.

He's just afraid to tell them how much he cares. "I'd probably clam up," he explains. "I get too self-conscious when I know people are making judgments about what I say."

And just as the president can't face his people, his people can't face him. While slitting his boss's throat, the assassin says, "It's what they wanted. The people. They just didn't know how to ask for it."

That doesn't read as an attack on any particular official but as a cry of anguish for leaders and citizens so alienated from each other they can't communicate. A lack of understanding trumps good intentions, which leads to anger. And while anger results in action, the action doesn't fix the problem.

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