War Games

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this is war signal ensembleReally, it’s already September? The Chicago summer, so mercurial this year on how warm or not-warm it wanted to be, zoomed by like a Japanese bullet train. Between being busier than usual at my day job and a nearly week-long traipse to Mexico City (more on that in an upcoming blog post), I skipped a lot of the August theater offerings. But the fall theater season stealthily crept up on me, so I eased myself into it by going over to Signal Ensemble last weekend for the Chicago premiere of Hannah Moscovitch’s This Is War, about a quartet of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in the late 2000s. “Eased” might not be the best word since the play is tough and wrenching. Although engagingly watchable due to its ensemble’s bombastic, committed, complicated performances, I’m not sure I particularly bought into the writing as a whole.

Moscovitch is an ascendant playwright, and she does an admirable job in painting the impact on the lives of four soldiers after a joint operations maneuver with the Afghan military against the Taliban in Panjwaii in 2008.  Although at the beginning of the play three of the four characters come out to talk to an unseen interviewer about the incident, Moscovitch quickly zeroes in on Tanya, on her second tour of duty in Afghanistan, still haunted by her accidental defensive killing of a child during her first posting to the country.  As if Tanya doesn’t have enough problems dealing with the ghosts of war, she also has to fend off the aggressive advances of both her Sergeant (sexual) and a fellow Private, Jonny (romantic).  And that’s probably where I am perplexed by Moscovitch’s writing choices: she focuses a lot of time on the sexual and romantic tensions between Tanya and the boys who are after her, instead of exploring more deeply and comprehensively the effects of war and her wartime actions on her decisions and beliefs. At the risk of sounding crass, half the time during This Is War I felt like I was watching Grey’s Anatomy in camouflage vests. I appreciate the fact that even in an extraordinary situation like a war people cannot stop being people with emotional attachments and sexual urges, but are these really the most compelling emotions to write about? Especially if the title of your play is This Is War?

Although I like the tightness and brisk pacing of Moscovitch’s scenes and the earthiness of her dialogue, This Is War contains two of my pet peeves in contemporary theater. First, I’m not a big fan of the continuous use of talking to an unseen interviewer/judge/interrogator; instead of playing scenes out, the audience gets exposition and narration. Frankly for me, it’s a lazyman’s writing device. Second, the use of the Rashomon method of re-enacting the same scene from each player’s point of view is getting to be exhaustingly trite. I don’t mind it if there are significant differences in the characters’ points of view that changes how the audience responds to a character or to a scene; in This Is War’s case, there aren’t, so the repetition of scenes (or beginnings of scenes) feels, well, repetitive.

Despite the flawed writing, the exceptional cast under Ronan Marra’s steady, confident direction, gives the material their all.  Courtney Jones is riveting as an emotionally-scarred woman whose vulnerability the craftier, more emotionally-confident males are taking advantage of.  Dylan Stuckey as Anders, the medic, displays quiet resolve and grounding in the middle of the brutalizing environment. Stuckey is an interesting actor, but his soft delivery of lines is sometimes challenging to hear even in the small confines of Signal Ensemble’s black box theater. It’s also quite jarring since the rest of the ensemble deliver lines with their outside voices (which is necessary with the high emotions of the scenes).  Michael Finley is terrific as the new conscript, Jonny, both endearing with his aw-shucks naiveté and impressive with his steeliness in surviving the war. But it is Billy Fenderson, sensational as the complicated, sexually-coiled Sarge, who gives the best performance of the quartet: sexy, raw, ravenous, brittle. Here is a man who has been brutalized by the war, whose personal life has been left in shambles, and whose primary coping mechanism is sex, a man whose ethics and perspectives are twisted and strained. He embodies the point that the costs of war will be endlessly paid for by the surviving foot soldiers sent to fight it.

This Is War runs at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., until September 28.

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