Soldiers’ Tales

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TheBrig-3It has been quite the exciting, eclectic grab bag of theater openings this Chicago spring (or non-spring, after the cruel tease of two days of 80 degree weather this week, it’s now back to the usual cold, damp, grey of early May that we Chicagoans know only so well).   There have been brilliant gems like The Whale, world premieres, revivals, an impeccable Broadway in Chicago production of Anything Goes which gives dignity back to the words “touring production”, even a bunch of New York City female theater artists cavorting in all their full-frontal natural glory on the MCA Stage, thanks to the brazen Young Jean Lee.   Similar to past years, I’ve been having difficulty catching up, despite seeing 2-3 shows a week. I’ve been able to go, though, to Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.’s intensely atmospheric production of the little-revived 60s experimental theater watershed, Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig; as well as the graceful, if somewhat disjointed, world premiere at the Goodman Theater of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ The Happiest Song Plays Last, the follow-up to her Pulitzer prize-winning Water by the Spoonful (which will receive its Chicago premiere at the Court Theater next season). Both plays feature soldiers as leading characters; both are worth seeing, intriguing despite their flaws.

Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig is one of the more notorious products of American, specifically New York, theatrical experimentation in the 1960s due to its often-times maddeningly inscrutable structure as well as to the fact that its last performance in 1963 was defiantly held by The Living Theater and attended by an audience, despite having been shut down by the city government due to the theater’s tax troubles.  Brown based The Brig on his weeks-long experience in an on-base prison for wayward Marines on Okinawa during the Korean War, and vividly, angrily portrayed the humiliation and depersonalization that he experienced.  Anyone looking for a traditional narrative will go home sorely disappointed and probably as angry as Brown was when he wrote the play; The Brig chronicles a couple of days in the lives of nine Marines held for a variety of infractions in the brig under the relentlessly brutal eye, and hands, of their jailers/commanders.  The soldiers are yelled at, made to do a variety of mundane tasks, yelled at, beaten, yelled at, made to follow every single order thrown at them by the officers however nonsensical they may be, made to shower quickly (yep, I have not seen this many fully-frontal nude actors since Naked Boys Singing. Take that, Young Jean Lee!), yelled at.   It’s a tough, patience-testing play but Jennifer Markowitz ‘s well-thought-out production is sweaty, riveting, jarring, stomach-churning at times, helped immensely by an unconventional seating arrangement (one audience member sits by the Marine commander’s desk throughout the show, a group watches the show locked inside a jail cell); Tyler Garlock’s emotionally volatile lighting clearly evoking both harshness and delirium; and an impressively-committed cast of young actors, many of whom I have not previously seen on a Chicago stage.  The performances are highly physical and tortuous, but it is hard to single out any actor because Brown’s writing is light (if non-existent) on characterization.  We never get to know any of these characters, even the officers, and that’s probably Brown’s point – the dehumanization of the military prison, and the military organization as a whole, is unacceptable.  It is bold of Mary-Arrchie to put on this play right now, in 2013, especially since the portrayal of military life is impolitic for our times, to say the least.   Also because plays like The Brig could be truly considered envelope-pushing during their time and day, but by now, seem like a whole lot of exhaustion for naught. I think there is a reason why the play isn’t revived that often – it is watchable but not compelling for today’s audiences, which goes to show that 1963’s experiment is today’s quaint artifact.

On the other hand, Quiara Alegria Hudes’ The Happiest Song Plays Last is a play for the 21st century. The final entry in The Elliot Trilogy which follows her real-life cousin Elliott from deployment to Iraq and return to civilian life, it is an engaging, lively piece, with characters that are so personally-etched that you care about them, yet at the same time tackles large cultural and political themes (immigration, identity, Hollywood glamorization of the war, urban gentrification, etc.) that you are provoked to examine and reflect on your own views.  And maybe that’s it – there is just so much stuff going on in the foreground and in the background of the play that the parts seem more entrancing than the whole. Although I enjoyed many, many parts of The Happiest Song Plays Last, I feel it never pulls itself together.  The story of Elliot in Jordan suddenly becoming the lead actor of a film on the Iraqi War that he was initially hired to be a technical adviser on does not really clearly weave together with the story of his cousin Yaz in Philadelphia dealing with single motherhood and the day-to-day issues of the Puerto Rican urban community.  The questions of identity in the Jordan section of the play, as articulated by Elliot’s Jordanian translator who turns out to be an exiled Iraqi, are echoed in Yaz’s deep attraction to the sense of community of her Puerto Rican neighborhood and  to the nostalgia and memories represented by the older cuatro musician Agustin, one of the slowly vanishing breed of musical artists practicing jibaro music, which recalls homeland and tradition to many Puerto Ricans. They are echoes, but both sections feel like separate playlets, and the device of having Elliot and Yaz regularly skype to keep each other updated on one another’s lives feels strained. Eddie Torres’ production is gentle and leisurely, made lush and enveloping by the inclusion of jibaro songs (performed by Grammy-nominated Nelson Gonzales) throughout the play.  The performances are top-notch: Armando Riesco’s  Elliot is astoundingly lived-in (well, he has played Elliot in the world premiere productions of all three plays), and impressively layered, full of love and gratitude for life on the surface, yet deeply pained and haunted underneath;  while Sandra Marquez’s Yaz is intelligent, sexy, funny, passionate, committed.  I just wish that the play in its future productions will gain more clarity and coherence because it is a play that feels so freshly relevant to our times.

The Brig runs until May 26 at Mary-Arrchie’s Angel Island space, 735 N. Sheridan Road. The Happiest Song Plays Last is at the Goodman Theater’s Owen Theater, 170 N. Dearborn St., until May 12.

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