Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
January 25, 2012
Billed as show that was built from interviews with soldiers, Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din is infinitely more than I expected. If this show is perhaps more than it should be ultimately, I must say I pity the poor bastard who has to cut it down to size. This dense and wonderful evening of theater has a stellar cast and remarkable moments, a richness of theatricality that attests strongly to that extensive talent that put it together. While there is overall too much material and it would benefit greatly from a bit more shaping, this production is well worth seeing and fully audience-worthy in its current state.
A solid design team capped by smart set design of Chris Morris has turned the Bushwick Starr space into a spare but fully realized VFW lodge. They utilize far more of the space than I have seen previously and the show’s energy fills it completely. This VFW serves as a sort of soldiers-only drinking hole where these stories can be told among those who understand.
Within this space the actors come in as soldiers from a variety of wars fought on foreign soil with stories and dialogue drawn from a variety of sources and times. It is a distinction not entirely clear within the press materials. The range is so broad that it is probably more accurate to consider the show a narrative history of the American soldier's experience from World War II on, rather than a StoryCorps piece on war in this century. The spectrum begins with a soldier and his gal are bidding farewell for WWII but then the show leaves the traditional images and is off and running through a rich range of experience. Including texts from both fronts of WWII and Vietnam as well as the two Gulf wars, these narratives flow seamlessly into each other and criss-cross moments in time. Roles are not hampered by gender and so Patton’s words come roaring through Mary Jane Gibson with the right level of passionate conviction. Soldiers follow rules and soldiers fail the rules, there is sentiment and savagery and this uniformly strong ensemble never falls below rock solid in their work and are fascinating to watch.
If the very skillful direction of Mark Sitko does err somewhat with too much movement underscoring the first half, he also keeps the pace urgent and important. There is absolutely no wallowing or emotional indulgence, and that is one of the many strengths in the production. The program notes that blocking was based on or inspired by movie moments but the incessant physicality is problematic. These moves often play over the scene, separate from the content of the text. It is at times interesting but occasionally the frenetic blocking serves more to interrupt the flow then inform the moments. There are also enough textual references to movies within the texts that frequently had me out of the play, wondering if I should be recognizing the references. In its current form, despite the wealth of materials and talent, it remains unclear what the ultimate goal of the production is—is it to make a statement about war or about the soldiers’ actual experience or how that experience is interpreted by movies? At the moment it feels as if Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din is trying to do all these things by not making a solid commitment to any specific direction. This is not a failing exactly but more the a consideration for the next stage of this piece’s evolution.
And this production deeply deserves that development time. There is too much talent here and too many wonderful elements firmly in place for it not to go on to fully realized level. See it now in this rich state of development and hopefully there will also be the opportunity to see it again in its next iteration. Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din is an intriguing production and as it is, is some of the most solid theater available.