Picnic on the Battlefield
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 8, 2005
The Chocolate Factory's too-brief (just three performances) mounting of Picnic on the Battlefield is worthy of special attention because it gives New Yorkers a very rare look at the work of Fernando Arrabal. Arrabal, born in 1932 and still living (but, as far as I can tell from my Google search, not actively working) in France, is, like so many 20th century European dramatists, virtually unknown in the U.S. Yet his work in the '50s, '60s, and '70s marks him as a prolific and significant voice in the theatre; the evidence, from this production, is that his absence on our stages is our loss. (As far as I can tell, there have been but two other productions of Arrabal in New York in the last decade, both small-scale shows at HERE.)
So why should we care about a Spanish guy who wrote plays protesting, among other things, war in general and the Franco regime in particular? Sample the following exchange from this play for a taste of Arrabal's resonance in 2005:
MARK [a soldier]: Papa, why don't you take a photo of the prisoner on the ground and me with my foot on his stomach?
FATHER: Oh yes, that'd look good.
ORION [the prisoner of war, just captured by MARK]: Oh no, not that!
MOTHER: Say yes, don't be obstinate.
Shades of Abu Ghraib...
Okay, I need to backtrack a little; you're wondering what Mark's mother and father are doing, discussing photographing POWs with their son. Picnic on the Battlefield, as its name suggests, takes place on a Sunday afternoon in a war. Mark, on Our Side, is alone on a battlefield. When the play begins, a violent enemy attack has just ended. Suddenly, he hears some unexpected noise, which turns out to be his Mother and Father marching nonchalantly toward him, bearing a large picnic basket. Unfazed by the noise and dirt all around them (not to mention the occasional bursts of mortar and gunfire), these two have come to spend a lovely afternoon with their son. They pull out two big bottles of wine, platters loaded with ham and cheese sandwiches and other goodies, and a jolly red-and-white checked blanket that Mother spreads out on the ground.
Their bliss is interrupted, temporarily, by the sudden appearance of Orion, a soldier who is on the Other Side. Mark dutifully chases Orion and eventually captures him; at his parents' urging he ties the prisoner up. The photographs, which Mother intends to place on their dining room table at home, come next.
The point of this kinda-scary absurdist farce is admittedly obvious and hammered home without much subtlety by the time Arrabal's done with it. But there's more going on here than a simple anti-war parable. There's a great scene in the middle of the play, for example, in which a bombing raid from an enemy plane seems to threaten the picnic's continuation. Mark dodges for cover, but Mother—as undaunted as Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days—merely puts up her umbrella. Earlier passages have intimated, obliquely, that Mark's parents' generation may somehow be responsible for this purposeless war; now their seeming indestructibility in the face of real danger feels a lot like arrogance. It reminded me of our current administration.
Thomas Weitz's production of this short play is suitably off-kilter and stylized, juxtaposing the weird breeziness of Mark's parents with the brutal conditions of the battlefield. Weitz makes splendid use of space, pushing the action very close to the audience in places to ensure that the play's ideas don't get swallowed up by the Chocolate Factory's airy white-box stage. The actors all do excellent work, especially Jason Guy, who really grounds the piece as Father (his elegant footwork during a delightfully incongruous dance on the battlefield is particularly wonderful in terms of defining his character). The rest of the cast includes Doug Johnson as Mark, John Solomytis as Orion, Dawn Timm as Mother, and Mark Lindberg and Michelle Gough as a pair of medics who turn up a couple of times in search of the dead and wounded.
Design elements are all nicely executed as well, the standout being Mike Wagner's fine lighting design, which provides useful special effects to indicate bombings and rifle fire. Weitz's sound design, mostly emanating from a huge radio, also contributes mightily to the play's effectiveness.
Bravo to Weitz, the Chocolate Factory, and their collaborators for giving us a look at an obscure work that proves to have real pertinence. I hope this will encourage others to dig further into the works of Arrabal and his absurdist contemporaries, for they have many things to teach us.