nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
March 10, 2006
There’s a line in Coppola’s classic film Apocalypse Now that goes something like this: “…the officers refuse to let their men write 'fuck' on their airplanes because it’s obscene.” The irony of this statement is quite clear; but what is not so clear is the line that stands between acts of war and acts of excessive cruelty. And, as we tread this line we may ask, who is to blame when the line is crossed? Do we blame the officers that gave the order, the soldiers that carried out the order, or do we blame the society from which they spawn? This is the center (and always relative) concept behind Anne Nelson’s new play Savages.
The play is “an account from the Philippine-American War” and is based on the true story of a Marine Major named Littleton Waller. The occasion the play is the eve of Major Waller’s verdict in his court-martial. He has fallen ill and can barely make it through a day in the courtroom but he insists on clearing is name. Army General Adna Chaffee appears to be using Waller as a scapegoat due to the pressure being put on him from politicians in Washington. It would seem that Waller led a group of Marines who carried out questionable orders of cruelty. The orders were given in response to acts of cruelty by the enemy.
The story plays out in a small room where Waller is being held. He is being guarded by a young and somewhat naive Army Corporal named John Hanley. Waller’s illness is being tended by a local Filipino girl named Maridol Amaya. These two characters seem to be the conscience of the audience in that they have nothing to do with the incident but are making judgments (or at least statements) based on their respective backgrounds. These are the characters that actually have a sort of transformation and eventually come close to understanding one another.
As for the story within the play itself, I was a little hard-pressed to find one. The play is long on somewhat heady banter but short on plot and action. For the most part nothing really happens. In fact, I found it hard to understand what was so interesting about Waller’s story that compelled Nelson to write about it. The play certainly does not elaborate on his tale, nor do the support materials provided to me. It is perhaps Nelson’s goal to highlight the issues rather than the actual story and if that is indeed the case then she does so very well. But I missed being provided the benefits of a whole story. I love theatre that requires me to think, but I go to the theatre to feel something for the character’s plight. I certainly left Savages thinking, but when the lights came up and the actors took their bows I felt let down because I wanted more than just a series of perspectives.
The ensemble does a decent job creating their characters. Julie Danao-Salkin as Maridol provides us with a fairly clear vision of the locals and James Matthew Ryan as Waller certainly has his moments, but Brett Holland and Jim Howard as Corporal Hanley and General Chaffee respectively merely create two dimensional renditions of real people.
Director Chris Jorie uses the intimate space at the Lion Theatre to its utmost and he keeps a tight pace, but he seems to have a missed a couple of key moments. One in particular comes in the penultimate scene of the play where the characters are all locked in debate. Had I not been listening carefully, I would have missed the importance of the things being said because the scene lacked the sharp rise in action needed to highlight the words. The scene instead falls flat and the relevance it has to our current conflict in Iraq is almost lost. I would think that bridging the gap between these two wars should have been Jorie’s top priority.
The production values of Savages are quite high. The costumes, provided by Rebecca Bernstein, look really great and Lauren Helpern’s set works just fine.
In the end, I think Savages is worth a look. It’s short, only 90 minutes, so you can’t feel like you’ve wasted your entire evening. There are those that may enjoy an evening of interesting perspectives on the nature of war and the violent acts war produces, but, for me, I need theatre that spins yarns that force me to feel as much as I think.