by Allison Mollenkamp
The Lab Theater on UNL’s campus is a three-quarter round. The audience sits within a few feet of Emma Hoffbauer’s minimalist set – a folding table with some crates and a bench as chairs, with two tent doors covered in wire fencing in the back. Cards and discarded cash mark the middle of a poker game. Hoffbauer does a lot with a little here. A radio plays tinny rock and roll from atop one of the crates. Jordan Taylor Thomas and Rebecca Ellers help build the world of the show before it even starts with the sounds of helicopters and gunfire interspersed with the music. Because the space is so small, there is an immediate intimacy to this show.
The show is framed by one-sided interviews; cast members stand near the edge of the stage and speak to an imagined reporter just above the audience’s heads. We learn they’ve been through something terrible, but they deny over and over again that they had anything to do with it.
That trauma is the through-line for the show. Interspersed with the interviews are scenes from the course of one week in a Canadian military camp in Afghanistan. First, we follow Master Corporal Tanya Young (Grace Debetaz), who feels like nothing is going right. She is the only woman in the cast (and perhaps in the camp, though we only meet four soldiers), and her experience is violent. Debetaz shines in scenes that are otherwise very hard to watch. Her anger feels real and visceral, and her desperate need to save innocent people matches up well with the audience’s point of view.
The audience’s view, however, is not always in line with the script. This play involves more than one instance of sexual assault against Debetaz’s character. While we follow her character, the script feels angry about it, but later, when the viewpoint shifts to her assaulter, Private Jonny Henderson (Jesse Turos), it feels as if the script is a little too sympathetic to his plight. We are told he loves her, that he’s young and far from home and she brought him comfort after the death of a fellow soldier. All of that may be true, but it shows the play’s age.
This is War premiered in 2012, and this very much feels like a pre-#MeToo play. We are given all the reasons Turos’ character did what he did, and asked to believe he is sincere. In the current consciousness, this feels icky at best. Here, I think director Christa Retka did a good job with a difficult script. She made Debetaz’s anger and pain prominent wherever possible in the show, which was helped along by brilliant fight choreography (Ian Borden and Travis Banks).
Turos himself helps these scenes as well. His version of Jonny is fidgety, nervous, and quick to lash out. He commits fully to the physicality and the vocal idiosyncrasies of the character, including in one deeply disturbing moment when he is alone onstage halfway through the show. Turos shows us a man who is, himself, in immense pain. This does not justify his actions, but it is interesting to watch.
Towards the end of the show perspective shifts again to join Sergeant Stephen Hughes (Connor Garrison), who brings us closer to the show’s core trauma than the other characters have been able to so far. This is where we start to ask the real questions of the plot. How much did Garrison’s character know? Was he a participant or merely an unwilling bystander? Garrison is at times charming and at others incredibly raw.
Though he only gets one interview moment at the end of the show, Sergeant Chris Anders (Phil Crawford), feels like the moral center of the show. Though he looks to be about the same age as the other actors, Crawford is able to play Anders as older and wiser, looking out for the other characters as they go back and forth from the edge. Crawford’s character is gay, and here again the script falters. We get maybe three lines about sexuality, but instead of feeling as if it is an accepted part of the landscape, it feels like an afterthought.
The script is not shy about sex in general, however. It’s all through the play, but this is sex without emotion. It is fueled by boredom, by trauma, by desire, but it never feels like there’s much real affection between the characters. One of the show’s few moments of comic relief comes when we are asked to listen to a full minute and a half of offstage sex noises. (If you hadn’t realized already, this is not a show to bring the kids to.)
Actors are nothing without a tech crew, and this is another strong point of the production. Scene changes were smooth, quiet, and fast, which must have required quiet a bit of practice, given that they happen with actors still speaking onstage. Lighting (Thomas and Ellers) helped here, both to give the feeling of different spaces, and to hide the run crew. The costumes didn’t give too much room for designer Jaci Tubbs to be creative, as the characters are always in uniform, but based on Tubbs’ bio she seems to have a specialty in blood effects, and it shows on this show. Where there is gore (and it’s not a spoiler to say there is gore in a show about war), it is always just enough. We feel the grit of blood, the visual of blood, without it ever slipping past grit into comedy.
I saw this show alone Friday night, but I think I would recommend bringing a friend. The show deals so much in trauma and violence that it might be nice to have someone to talk about it with afterwards. Maybe get some ice cream or watch a sitcom after too. You’ll need it to cheer up.
If you go: This is War runs Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Lab Theater on UNL’s campus. Tickets are $7 (a bargain in Lincoln), and are available at online.
Allison Mollenkamp is a reporter and producer for NET News. You may have seen her onstage at the Lincoln Community Playhouse or the STAGE Theater in Hickman. After a lifetime of moving around, she’s happy to find a home in the Lincoln theatre community. You can follow her on twitter @alliemollenkamp.
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