BWW Review: BLUE CAMP at Rainbow Theatre Project
The Rainbow Theatre Project's BLUE CAMP is ready for a wider audience.
America seems painfully divided today and there's no greater symbol of that rift than Washington DC. The conflict between and amongst political parties seems to be in an era of rapid escalation driving dizzying news cycles. Perhaps then, it is poignant that tucked in a corner of Saint Augustine's Episcopal Church in SW DC is a compelling story of young men quietly taking a stand for equality. Literally across the street from the world-class Arena Stage, the world premiere of BLUE CAMP is almost a symbol in itself of small voices rising alongside established ones to carve out a space to be heard.
The local writing team of Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna tell a witty and moving story of a group of gay soldiers ostracized during the Vietnam War. Either forcefully outed or confessed homosexuals, the men are sent to a holding location known as "Blue Camp" for enlistees who are under review for dishonorable discharge. Other offenders carry illegal or even violent transgressions, but they all must learn to get along.
Bearing hindsight of the atrocious conditions of the conflict in Vietnam, it is difficult to imagine there is a fate worse than being sent to the front lines. However, for the men who risk losing benefits from the GI Bill, VA home loans, and public shame, equality is worth the fight.
Nothing bridges a divide like getting to know the people you don't understand, which is perhaps why in a digital era we're growing farther apart. BLUE CAMP is an intimate invitation to spend two hours walking in someone else's army boots. Times change and things stay the same and there is much to be learned in this echo of struggles of the past.
The premise may sound intense, but don't expect to walk out of the show with frayed nerves. BLUE Camp is more To Wong Foo than it is Platoon. It's a somber subject confronted with humor and irresistible flair. The company of characters is large, but each is endearing and have satisfying storylines that could soften even the stoniest of hearts.
Director Christopher Janson has an excellent hold on the material and draws strong performances from the entire cast. The scenes are fast-paced and flow well and always stick the landing.
Moses Bossenbroek is effortless as Billy, an out and proud patriot who readily stands up for himself and his country. Equally skilled as an entertainer and a soldier, Bossenbroek believably exudes both roles aided by fight choreography by Logan Beveridge. They're a triple threat - in this case acting, singing, and fighting - who dazzles as the show's emotional center. It's a pleasure to be charmed by them for two hours.
Lansing O'Leary carries the show's heaviest role as Gary. He's introduced as strong and silent then crumbles before us as he is punished literally and psychologically for truths about himself he doesn't even yet understand. Bossenbroek and O'Leary are the power players of the show and collide in the most moving moment. Their chemistry is superb and a welcome relief among tenser moments.
Daniel Riker is adorable as Arnold and expertly cast in the nerdy art historian role. Ivan Carlo as Alvin most deftly handles the side story of the misunderstood criminals as a young soldier whose greatest talent gets him into sticky situations. Jared H. Graham as Sergeant Swanger nimbly represents both the establishment as well as the sympathetic mentor who can shine a light on all that his ragtag team has to offer.
Comedic beats are hard to hit, but the script provides solid footing. Some of the company slips into Hogan's Heroes territory of slapstick at times, but for the most part, the humor lands with sincerity.
The stage is essentially a glorified event dance floor but is submerged in enough ambiance to draw us into the barracks. Elliott Shugoll's lighting design is impressively complex and adds real depth to the scenes. His configuration elevates the space from a multipurpose room to a true stage. Sound designer Elliot Lanes pilots most of the time travel, sending us back to the golden era of rock interspersed with some tricky sound cues including recorded voiceovers by Rick Foucheux as a radio announcer and James Gardiner as a baseball announcer. Their avoidance of technical difficulties in a space that isn't built for theater is mightily impressive.
The soldier's stain-free pants and polished boots definitely don't look like they've seen combat, but costume designer T.F. Dubois strikes all the right silhouettes. Particularly in a powerful moment at the close of the show where Billy fearlessly heads off to war.
I'm eager for BLUE CAMP to reach farther-flung areas of the country. The performance hosted a full crowd but seemed to trend toward an audience who already held sympathetic leanings. Caggiano and Hanna's story is fully fleshed and well suited to carry their message to communities with more diverse viewpoints. Then again, maybe the heart of the political sphere is a good place to start.
BLUE CAMP paints in the humanity of characters who have been labeled as the enemy. It's a lesson we can all be reminded of time and again.
Running Time: One hour 55 minutes, including one intermission.
Blue Camp runs through November 24 at Thurgood Marshall Gallery at Saint Augustine's Episcopal Church at 555 Water Street SW Washington, DC 20024. Tickets are available for purchase at the door for cash only. For tickets visit: m.bpt.me/event/4318561