Unrestricted Acts: Violence and Vaudeville
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 3, 2007
Unrestricted Acts: Violence & Vaudeville is a double-bill of sharply contrasting original short plays. "Violence" is represented by Zack Calhoon's Breaking Ranks, a timely and thoughtful examination of women in the contemporary U.S. Army. The "vaudeville" section of the evening is America Perseveres by Eagle V. Brosi, a strange comedy that puts George and Martha Washington into a Waiting for Godot-esque scenario with mixed results. The combination makes for an interesting if not fully satisfying evening of theatre from the New Mummer Group.
Breaking Ranks takes place on an American base in Kuwait, dubbed "Generator City" because of all the noise made by the generators there. The time is now. Calhoon introduces us to a platoon of soldiers who are running missions into Iraq—two men (Lt. Caulfield and Sgt. Dadko) and two women (Cpl. Washburn and Specialist Tina Rodriguez) under the command of another man, Lt. Andrews. The risks faced by this company in the course of their daily work are severe, but the real focus of this play is specifically on how the women are faring. In a program note, we're given a bit of background regarding the difficulties of integrating women into the traditionally exclusive male bastion of front-line combat. Through the characters of Janice Washburn and Tina Rodriguez, Breaking Ranks explores this subject and the various approaches to coping with its particular stresses.
The situation for Janice and Tina is, in a word, tough. In addition to having to put up with inappropriate language and behavior that would surely qualify as sexual harassment in a civilian context, they also have to deal with the humiliation of being objectified by their comrades and with a very real threat of physical abuse. Tina becomes the victim of some of the above, and it is mostly through her eyes that we view the situation. But Calhoon shrewdly uses a framing device to tell his story, the making of a documentary film, during which Tina and all of her fellow soldiers are interviewed by the director. This enables us to see many sides of a complex issue.
But ultimately what Calhoon delineates here is a shameful, sorry aspect of U.S. military life that most of us probably haven't taken any time to think about; that's the real potency of Breaking Ranks. This is Calhoon's first production as a playwright, and the rawness of his talent is in evidence: the throughline is more predictable than he probably realizes, and I would have loved more ambiguity at the end, to provide a bit more dramatic heft. Ivanna Cullinan's realization of the piece is efficient and effective, and she's elicited strong work from most of her cast, particularly the three men—Jorge Cordova, Kent Meister, and Adam Swiderski—who together crystallize the dynamic of this platoon with great clarity. Stephanie Pistello, who is also New Mummer Group's founding artistic director, portrays Tina with fervency.
America Perseveres couldn't be more different from Breaking Ranks. Written by Kentuckian Eagle Valiant Brosi, this absurdist comedy is set in 1757, a couple of years before the of George and Martha Washington, and puts the future first couple on a bleak Beckettian landscape punctuated by a couple of bare trees and supplemented by an easel filled with show cards that are flipped over at key moments in the show (reiterating the notion of a "vaudeville"). As in Godot, the time is passed in trivialities, repetitions, and wordplay, all interspersed around reminders that they're waiting for someone, namely Martha's husband General Custis, whom she wishes George to kill. (The reason why is never explained.) The Indian chief Pontiac (here a 19-year-old young man, functioning sort of like the Che Guevara character in Evita) interrupts every so often, sometimes with shtick, and other times to challenge Washington. Custis does eventually arrive—it's possible that the Godot allusion is all in my head, I suppose. And Martha is played by a man. What does it all mean? I honestly couldn't say. I found the piece fitfully funny but mostly perplexing. Jim Kane impresses as George, and Raymond Hill is commanding in drag as Martha, but it seemed to me that Alex Teachey, underplaying throughout, was most in touch with the piece's native style as Pontiac. Paul Urcioli's staging feels undercooked.
It certainly makes for a mixed bag; the impulse to provide some comic relief after the intensity of Calhoon's earnest war play is a good one. But I wonder if a more even match-up might make for a more fulfilling evening all around.