Globe-trotting Philly company Pig Iron settles down for a five-show hometown residency to celebrate its 10th anniversary, kicking off the season with “Gentlemen Volunteers,” a WWI melodrama of love and loss. Having performed this show throughout Europe and the U.K., Pig Iron is playing it again: It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, and it’s still brilliant — politically relevant, emotionally satisfying and the perfect showcase for its many talents. This could give melodrama a good name.
Presented “in promenade,” the audience shifts from station to station in the huge, nearly empty armory lit solely by hanging light bulbs. Performed in English, French and mime, plot follows two Yalies who volunteer for the Ambulance Corps in France in 1916.
Vincent (Gabriel Quinn Bauridel) is a poet who will discover that war is not such a lark after all (“so much death, so little meaning”) and Rich (Dito van Reigersberg) is the jock eager to get in on the dangerous action. The clash of the disillusioned humanist and the gung-ho hotshot echoes in the contemporary as we contemplate “The War to End All Wars” as a failed concept as well as a failed slogan.
The two men fall in love with two nurses — perky English Mary (Cassandra Friend), out for adventure, and head nurse Francoise (Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey), whose husband’s death at the front has left her embittered and cold.
All the predictable stuff happens — the pandemonium of battle (astonishingly created by only four actors plus sound effects), nursing the wounded, writing letters, getting drunk at the bar, falling in love and falling into bed. But it’s rendered by gesture more than word, without props, makeup or sets, relying on the actors’ expressive faces and supple, strong bodies to convey ideas and impact.
If the scene requires a desk, draw one in the air. Draw a window. Open it. Papers blow off the desk.
The conventional miming depends in part on James Sugg’s sound effects, which he creates in plain sight with the simplest of objects. When a nurse mimes opening a wound with a scalpel and dropping the shrapnel into a basin, we hear a “ping” at exactly the right moment. The precision timing and the discipline visible in every gesture are further sources of fascination for the audience.
Going far beyond the guy-trapped-in-the-box school of mime, Pig Iron’s most imaginative and emotionally potent technique is to use a third, silent person as a kind of doppelganger. Moving alongside the speaking characters, this figure expresses in action the inner yearnings that neither of the scene’s speaking characters is able or willing to say out loud.
Surprisingly, much of this sad story is funny and much is charming, and it is all dazzlingly theatrical.