BWW Reviews: Arena Stage's OUR WAR - Nothing if Not Ambitious
Much like last year's world premiere production of Healing Wars, Arena Stage's world premiere production of Our War considers the well-worn topic of the American experience with war, but with a unique approach. While Healing Wars melded the world of dance and theatre to explore the wounds of war, Our War is out of the ordinary in another way. Each performance features eighteen of twenty five monologues written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights like David Lindsay-Abaire and Lynn Nottage, other playwrights whose work has been seen at Arena in the last decade (Heather Raffo and Charles Randolph-Wright), and other notable authors like Ken Ludwig and Ken Narasaki. The monologues, presented under the direction of Anita Maynard-Losh, offer contemporary or history-based reactions to the Civil War, the issues that spurred that war and remain on the national conscious, and consider more generally how one's identity and place within society shapes not only his/her perception of history, but the nature of America today.
Given the scope, there's little doubt that Our War is nothing if not ambitious. The cross-section of monologues used in the production varies depending on the performance (there is a "Stars" variety and a "Stripes" variety - the opening night crowd was treated to the "Stars" selections). The monologues cover everything from a present day ten-year-old's startling interpretation of why the Civil War was fought and how it could have been avoided (John Strand's The Truth, Revealed) and the immigrant's experience in the present day US military (Aditi Kapil's Moo and María Agui Carter's Fourteen Freight Trains), to those that examine complex issues of race and identity (Ken Narasaki's Context and Lydia Diamond's Addressing), or those that explore the wounds of war/military service (Amy Freed's Convalescent Ward, Harrison's Landing 1862 and Tanya Saracho's The Good Private). Projections (Robbie Hayes) are used to cue the audience into which monologue is being presented at any given moment.
Each monologue is ably performed by one of six equally strong performers (Kelly Renee Armstrong, Ricardo Frederick Evans, John Lescault, Tuyet Thi Pham, Lynette Rathnam, and Sara Waisanen) or a guest performer drawn from DC's expansive pool of community leaders. On opening night, the Honorable Ruth Bater Ginsburg (Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States) lent her voice to David Lindsay-Abaire's That Boy, which explores family dynamics at wartime. Whether the inclusion of a different notable leader in each performance is a gimmick or a ploy for greater attention may be up for debate. That being said, no matter how I feel about it, I do have to give the creative team some credit for doing something a little bit different. At the very least every performance will have something fresh and new to offer.
I also give the playwrights and director Maynard-Losh much respect for tackling what is clearly a challenging labor of love. True, on opening night, the academic nerd in me was left contemplating what, if anything, the disparate monologues as a collective whole added to the national dialogue about issues of importance that hadn't already been said. I also pondered whether some of the playwrights treated complex sociological ideas too simplistically for my liking. The entire production also left me intrigued from a structural perspective. While clearly a through-line wasn't the intended goal here, I did feel that there could have been more attention to creating an overall theme. Whether this could be accomplished by examining more intently the order in which the monologues are presented or swapping what I thought to be some of the more irrelevant pieces from the program (Ken Ludwig's A Cause for Laughter and Samuel D. Hunter's The Homesteader) for others, I am not sure.
There are seeds of an interesting and unique theatrical piece here, but - at least in terms of overall concept - I did feel like I was watching the process of creation rather than a finished presentation at times. That's not a bad thing for a world premiere, however, because everything has to start somewhere. Concept issues aside, the production is very polished.
There are very few bells and whistles and nearly all focus is rightly on the playwrights' words as interpreted by the actors. Robbie Hayes' set/projections, Catherine Girardi's mood-enriching lighting design, and Elisheba Ittoop's patriotic sound design add a sense of theatricality and ambience without being too overpowering or flashy. They're well-integrated and complement the monologues well.
Several standout acting moments also emerge. Sara Waisman makes a strong first impression on John Strand's The Truth, Revealed as an elementary school student who emphasizes that the historical narrative is nothing if not open to interpretation. Tuyet Thi Pham and Lynette Rathnam give voice to two of the most sociologically nuanced monologues of the night - Ken Narasaki's Context and Aditi Kapil's Moo. Their confidence and spunk serve the pieces well. The most heartbreaking performance of the night comes from Ricardo Frederick Evans in María Agui Carter's Fourteen Freight Trains, which considers what it means to be an American from the perspective of a Guatemalan immigrant fighting in Iraq. Evans achieves more emotional depth in his several minutes interpreting this monologue than many actors can muster up in a ninety minute performance. Carter's rich characterization also makes this piece one to remember.
All in all, flaws and all, this is a production worth seeing. It's not an easy one, but there are ample chances to not only marvel at the work it took to put it together, but the ambition of the actors and creative team.
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
"Our War" plays through November 9, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300 or purchase them online.
Photo: Sara Waisanen and the company of "Our War"; by Teresa Wood.