Thursday, October 11, 2012

Black Watch

I was very lucky to get to see The National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch last night. Presented at the Broadway armory by Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The show originally ran in Chicago about 18 months ago, while I was in performances of The Copperhead. I missed my chance that time around, and thankfully the production was popular enough that CST brought it back for a two week run.

Black Watch is, I guess the best description is a multimedia production, about the famed Scottish Infantry regiment, identified by the red ostrich feathers worn on their hats. It combines video, movement, and theatre into a pretty powerful presentation about the regiment's deployment in Iraq. The show also offers the history of the regiment in a very concise and entertaining way.

Now, in general, I'm sick of hearing about Iraq in theatrical productions. I'm especially sick of the liberal hand-wringing that pervades most shows that go up about Iraq. We get it, right? We get that it was wrong, we shouldn't have been there, and that is was, in many ways, a disaster. I also say that as a pretty Liberal dude.

What's lovely about Black Watch is that, really, Iraq is central, yet not terribly important, to the ultimate story being told. It could be any number of conflicts. It's a catalyst for the characters to change and develop, and that's the key. There are various political statements and overtones to the show, but the story is about these soldiers being confronted with a kind of enemy they'd never confronted before. Much hay is made that the Black Watch has fought for hundreds of year, with forces all over the globe, distinguishing themselves, but the idea of suicide bombers is unnerving and confusing to them.

This is what I truly loved about the production. It's about soldiers, and makes no excuses or condescends to those men. They are gung-ho, and remain gung-ho, for most of the play, and the ultimate change doesn't hinge on a political awakening or speechifying (though there is some conversation made around that point), but at the fact they were ought-fought by a enemy they couldn't even truly see. The political themes are clear, yet wholly subservient to the story of these men, and their experiences.

As a side note, I am truly done with any script that positions "the military" as the villain, and then offers little to no reasoning for this other than they are "the military." I have tons of gripes and arguments with politicians and bureaucrats who put these events in motion, but nothing but respect for the soldiers who have to survive, and end up doing and facing things that none of us will ever really have a clear picture of. Even if we like to sit back and click our tongues over the horrors of war. Most of us will never truly understand the horrors of war, period. These are men of honor, and the play respects that.

The show did remind me somewhat, in terms of scale, scope and style, of War Horse, but I think that show is the more solid, overall, production. The productions are both massive, and share the "boy's own adventure gone horribly wrong" feel. They also share the "less is more" aesthetic that I admire so much. Flying rigs are visible, set pieces serve multiple uses, and the scenes come alive, not through massive amounts of detail, but through the conviction of the performers. It allows such a more fluid performance. I love it.

There were things I didn't love. I felt some of the movement portions of the show went on longer than they needed to, especially since (as is utterly correct for a military-theme show) they were very regimented and repetitious. I did, on a couple of occasions, feel like they repeated a few times too many.

I also, and this is a pet peeve, I acknowledge, was not taken with the idea that writer Gregory Burke is, ostensibly, a character in the show. He, or his avatar, meets with the surviving troops in a pub after their return from duty. I didn't find this as utterly off-putting as when Moises Kaufmann and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project show up as characters in The Laramie Project (a choice that almost destroys that play for opposed to the sublime Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde - but I digress), mainly because these scenes are undercut so well by the humor of the veterans he's interviewing. Again, the vivid characters trump a choice that seems, on the surface, a bit self-serving. You went out and interviewed these guys? Great! However, reminding us of your process tends to draw me out of the story...and I am a big believer that the story is everything.

Minor thing, honestly. Like I said the characters are vivid enough, and the performances rich enough with humor, that I stayed invested. It stuck out mainly, I believe, because of my own issues.

All minor gripes about a show that really is something we should all be looking at, as theatre professionals. Large scale theatre that puts storytelling and fluid performance over design detail and minutia, as well as political theatre that keeps emotional content it's primary consideration. It's top-notch, and you should try to see it.

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