BWW Review: CYRANO-Inspired BURNING Picks a Fight With U.S. Army

Burning

Written by Ginger Lazarus, Directed by Steven Bogart; Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Scenic Design, David J. Miller; Lighting/Sound Design, David Wilson; Costume Design, Rachel Padula Shufelt; Fight Director, Ted Hewlett; Dialect Coach, Danny Bryck

CAST: Mal Malme, Jessica Webb, Steven Barkhimer, Ian Michaels, Zachary Clarence

Performances through October 20 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.bostonplaywrights.org

Playwright Ginger Lazarus set out to write a lesbian version of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac and ended up taking on the United States Army and its sorry history of abusing and harassing gays in the military. With the support of Artistic Director Kate Snodgrass, Lazarus' new drama Burning is being staged at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre under the able direction of Steven Bogart. It is an intimate and intense evening of theater with a lead actress who helped to shape the role of Cy Burns, having been involved with the play since its early staged readings.

Mal Malme gives a fully realized portrayal as lesbian ex-Army First Sergeant Burns who is the proprietor of a general store near an Army base in an unnamed Western town. Set in 2008, the story turns on the fact that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was the law of the land during Cy's fifteen years of service, resulting in an extremely unfortunate event that caused her to resign despite being a rising star. Clearly disturbed by the event and the necessity to keep silent for so long, she is something of a crusader or outside agitator. Cy maintains a blog to comment on the abuses and the commanders who allow them to happen, drawing the attention and ire of the local brass, Colonel Dulac (Steven Barkhimer).

Although separated from the military, Cy is still a soldier in many ways. She is stoical and keeps her own counsel, trusting few people and rarely sharing her emotions. She is secretly in love with Rose (Jessica Webb), a free-spirited straight woman who has her eye on a soldier from the base (Ian Michaels). Cole seems to reciprocate her attraction, but is horribly tongue-tied and asks Cy to help him find the words to woo Rose. Even though it appears to be against her own self-interest, Cy agrees because she wants Rose to be happy, even if it is with someone else. Cy's college-age part-time employee Sammy (Zachary Clarence) senses the danger in this arrangement, but his advice goes unheeded.

Wearing army fatigues and sporting a close-cropped haircut, Barkhimer puts on a stern demeanor and puffs out his chest like a commander. We recognize him as the evil, bad guy, but Barkhimer also digs down to the part of Dulac that respects Cy as a soldier, if not as a human or a woman. In contrast, Cole seems to be sensitive on the outside, but his inner warrior is more his true self. Michaels spends much of his time acting frustrated by his character's inability to articulate his feelings, but his performance lacks nuance. Rose tries desperately to draw him out, but Lazarus fails to provide a compelling reason for the attraction (other than the fact that he is cute) and her persistence. Webb conveys the emotions that Rose feels, but her scenes with Malme are much more credible. Cy takes good care of Rose and is solicitous of her feelings, and Webb responds by bringing more depth when they are onstage together.

Clarence is making his professional theater debut and shows good range as Sammy. He goes in and out of a drawl, eventually losing it completely, but he can be funny, loyal, sardonic, sad, and wise as Cy's sidekick. His story line parallels that of the gays in the military as he also faces challenges of being gay, trying to make it in the small college where he is a student. When Sammy gets assaulted for being who he is, Lazarus seems to be holding a mirror up to our society and saying that the military does not have a corner on the homophobia market, and there is a price whether you keep secrets or tell the truth.

David J. Miller's set features a central counter and a chalkboard with the daily specials, shelves lined with an array of groceries, and a trio of café tables covered with red and white checkered cloths. Rachel Padula Shufelt costumes Cy in jeans, t-shirts, and fatigues, and Rose in light, airy dresses, denim jacket, and cowboy boots. Lighting and sound design are by David Wilson.

There are some light, comic moments in the play, but it is mostly a drama laced with tragedy. The age old story of unrequited love is given a fresh twist by pairing it with the Cyrano theme and Lazarus pens beautiful, romantic letters from Cole (via Cy) to Rose. It is jarring to go from the romance theme to the gays in the military theme, but Bogart and company handle it well. However, juxtaposing the two themes and having Cy read her blog aloud as she writes it, detailing the epidemic of rape and alleged female suicides in the Army, makes it seem that the problems of two (or three) lovers don't amount to a hill of beans, by comparison. Lazarus has delved into something most disturbing about the U.S. military, and the repeal of DADT in 2011 was not the end of the plague of sexual assaults. BPT will host related special events during the run of the play: Two screenings of the 2012 documentary The Invisible War (Oct. 3, Oct. 6); Panel discussion Deadly Silences: Don't Ask Don't Tell, Sexual Assault, and the Military (Oct. 13). See their website for further information.

Photo credit: Boston Playwrights' Theatre (Jessica Webb, Mal Malme, Ian Michaels)

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