BWW Reviews: THE CASUALTIES OF WAR
There are certain shows in this great city that really should be seen by everyone - this show is one of them.
It would be wise to call this as a great piece of theater, yet there is so much more to say about Bill Holland's Hounds of War, it would be a shame to simply refer to this wonderful play as just another show to go and see on a Saturday night. Upon seeing a show, being part of an audience that has witnessed a given story from beginning to end, there are certain ones that a person knows are special - ones that, when actor and script meet, you know will be something special.
Holland has created something more than a simple plot with a beginning, middle and end, relinquished from the minds of those who saw within a few days of their attendance. His genius in writing this play has created something much more lasting - a theatrical experience, really, that not only captures the attention of the audience, but is also able to delve deep inside the minds of each character and so intricately and carefully dissect each part of his or her mind so that no idea, no feeling or emotion goes unnoticed. The characters seen upon the stage at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre turn into actual people, and combined with the psychological complexity of the plot, form a production that is incredibly unique and admirable to all playwrights ever hoping to write the next great story.
First developed and workshopped by Lezley Steele and Pulse Ensemble Theatre's Playwrights' Lab, now directed by Mark Cirniglaro, Hounds of War essentially tells the story of a man who remains haunted by the demons of his past while fruitlessly trying to start anew in the wilderness of Upstate New York. Jim (played by the fantastically manic and talented Christopher LaPanta) and his wife Mary (Margaret Curry) move from the big city to a place that is slightly less exciting and populated - that is, the feral animals within the surrounding forest have stepped in to replace all human contact. Aside from the couple's neighbor Henry (Tony Head), there is nothing more for either of them to look forward to, aside from the quietude and impending rainfall that such an area promises. Thankfully, Jim and Mary are anticipating a visit from their two sons, who are introduced as two very different people but continue to share a sort of brotherly affection. Larry (Justin Hofstad) has just returned from basic training, fulfilling his dream of being in the army and currently waiting for orders, while Robert (Patrick Massey) is on break from school. Their parents are beyond thrilled to see them, and they are just as happy to be reunited for a few weeks. From that point on, there is so much conflict which arises as the result of each character revealing something about him/herself, and the plot takes so many unexpected turns, that the audience has little choice but to become completely riveted by all that is going on.
It is really something beautiful to see a play work because of how beautifully written it is, and how intricately put together is its plot. It is clear how much time and thought were dedicated to making the transformation of each character from content individual to a confused and battered (sometimes physically) soul absolutely perfect. A major theme in this play is change, and how certain people adapt to it, while others are completely unaware of how little tolerance they have for such circumstances out of their control. Each person within this unfortunate family must inevitably point the finger at the paternal figure - the one who believes himself to have the perfect lifestyle as a result of this predestined layout of how life is meant to be lived, and is fortunate for witnessing how this is brought to fruition. Jim is so infatuated with having his vision of what he believes to be perfection brought about that he doesn't see how his determination affects those around him in such a detrimental fashion.
As a consequence of his domineering nature, his inability to accept one's choice to diverge from the path he has approved of, his family has kept up appearances for the sake of keeping peace within a household that has long since been shattered, its connections severed in the attempt of placating this man. This inability soon turns inward, as the perfect world Jim had envisioned for so long begins to crumble around him, not understanding what flaw could have existed in his plan to bring about such devastation; in the meantime does he see his own sanity - his humanity - begin to falter, turning him into something feral and basically unrecognizable as a person. Now, there are many stories about an individual possessing two natures, one good and one evil. Stevenson demonstrated this concept with Jekyll's transformation into the malicious Hyde, while many modern portrayals of vampires show such beings as fighting their evil side to become the heroic protagonists, seeking to reconcile themselves with their gruesome pasts and become one of the good guys.
Man has always been seen as having this duality within himself, but what makes Holland's play so intriguing is that there is little choice in what this man ultimately becomes. He does not understand why his life is unfolding in such a way, when before all was so beautifully arranged. His son had joined the army, upholding the tradition of his father, grandfather and many more before him; his other son exists for the joy of his mother. There is such a clear unfolding of events, that this disintegration of character is so clear and ironically rational to the audience, while the man experience all that occurs beneath his roof has no other choice but to succumb - not accept, but succumb to the disappearance of any semblance of his vision that remains. Only his wife remains to do what she can with the pieces of this shattered man, but the transformation from man to beast is already too far in affect for anything more of real significance to be done.
There is so much emotion to be found in this play, along with such events that would seemingly not belong becoming the perfect way to unexpectedly alleviate, even if just for a moment, the great amounts of uncomfortable tension. For example, there is this beautiful scene between Robert and Larry when a drunk Larry returns home from a night out and insists that his brother play a song on the guitar for him. A good five minutes is taken out of the play for this kid to play his guitar, and it really helps to reinforce the illusion that everything is ok. Not to mention that Patrick Massey has a really nice voice! This being said, there are also certain moments that are so intense that some people in the audience released a quick laugh, just because the moment was so uncomfortable. Much of this emotion is brought about as a result of how close audience is to actor; the director truly utilized this proximity to his advantage. The stage is very small, and the audience is so close that it is as though you become a spectator to people's lives, not merely someone watching a plot unfold on stage. If you happen to sit in the first row, you would be close enough to actually lift one of Jim's sons off the floor after his father threw him to the ground; it is pretty amazing to be that close to the action.
Speaking of fighting, Fight Choreographer Joe Pisapia deserves much praise for making the various fight scenes within this play (and small space) work so well. There is quite a bit of fighting in the ninety minutes that is this play. From Jim shoving and pushing virtually everyone to the ground, to the verbal quarrels that turn into incredibly intense fights, both Mr. Pisapia and the actors of Hounds of War deserve credit for avoiding injuries that could have very well happened. The action in this play is that intense and life-like, it is amazing that someone didn't get hurt. This action only adds to the less-physical tension that exists, but the way in which Jim becomes so angry, immediately thrashing anything in his path, is something I have never really seen before.
Last but not least, the actors. The actors are amazing. LaPanta is simply extraordinary. If you want to see a man get extremely angry, then transition nicely into a fairly civilized and even loving person, he is the perfect actor. He has such control over his emotions, even when he is anger incarnate; he is just really good at what he does. Curry has the patience of a saint, and to remain that calm and collected when her life is falling apart right alongside her husband's is really a gift; she is a wonderful actress. Head is awesome. He remains so suave throughout the play until the end, and when he is hurt by Jim's words at the end, he really shows how injured he is. Another great actor indeed! Lastly, Hofstad and Massey are just amazing. The scene in which Hofstod breaks down during his drunken stupor is simply amazing, along with his acting abilities as shown in every other scene. The same must be said for Massey. Like his brother, he must transition and admit to something that neither of his parents wants to hear, and to make this transition work is truly the sign of a great actor. Basically, this play worked because of a great playwright and the right cast.
As part of the Director's note, a quote from Miller Williams states that "What appears...an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone." Watching this show really makes one understand why such a statement is so, so true.
Hounds of War, written by Bill Holland and directed by Mark Cirnigliaro, began performances at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre on March 21st, and will continue thru April 5th. The theatre is located at 312 West 36th Street, NYC. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays @ 8:00pm, and Sundays @ 2:00pm. For more information and a link to buy tickets, visit www.WeeManProductions.com, www.brownpapertickets.com or call (800) 838-3006. The run time is 90 minutes without an intermission.
Photo Credit: Wee Man Productions