Synthesizing the work of more than 100 artists — including 10 playwrights, three of them Pulitzer winners — is a daunting task at best, yet Curious Theater Company’s ambitious examination of the U.S. at war comes through with flying colors. Buoyed by superb writing and stirring performances, director and co-playwright Bonnie Metzgar achieves a remarkable consistency of style with flexible set and costume design, power-packed dance and musical segues, elegant video and photographic treatment and recurring dramatic themes. The material and research is strong throughout, with more than an hour left on the cutting room floor.
Surrounded by barbed wire, sandbags, denuded trees, foot lockers and concrete walls, a.d. Chip Walton set the stage for the world premiere by reading a letter from a decorated U.S. military veteran — a ritual to be repeated at each performance.
Paula Vogel’s “The Closest I’ve Been to War” opens the production, connecting contemporary culture with the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.
Alternating dream sequences, poetry excerpts (Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”) and poignant historical incidents (the unearthing of a Union gravesite in Maryland at a construction site), Vogel’s work evokes passionate and reverential perfs from thesps Dee Covington and Step Pearce.
Metzgar follows by employing a universal soldier (Manuel R. Roybal Sr.) to lend perspective, occasional narrative voice and folk-guitar flavor to the melange of national conflicts. The worldly Roybal, looking every inch the Vietnam vet he is, recalls the moral urgency of ’60s protest singers with a stirring rendition of Suzan-Lori Parks’ haunting song “Welcome Me,” which conjures returning servicemen, dead and alive, a few verses at a time as the evening unfolds.
After an impressive drill exercise and marching sequence in which the ensemble displays its battle-hardened readiness, Stephen Foster’s racially tinged anthem “My Old Kentucky Home” leads to an examination of the role of African-Americans in military service, including a stunning speech delivered by Tyee Tilghman that draws on the fiery rhetoric of the Black Muslims and Malcolm X.
The inextricable connection between photography and modern war is brought into focus by Will Eno’s “Bully Composition,” which explicates the ambiguous emotions behind the faces of soldiers as they either prepare for battle or mark their survival. Eno’s knack for mixing existentialism and humor is highlighted by Karen Slack’s breathtaking monologue and hilarious antics as a high-strung photographic assistant, and by Erik Sandvold’s otherworldly channeling of a soldier rushing the enemy’s position.
A series of images and accompanying chants from Vietnam-era antiwar demonstrations serves as a bumper into a stirring speech by Chief Black Kettle (Tyee Tilghman). This kicks off Melissa Lucero McCarl’s heartbreaking “The Pledge of Lesions,” an uncomfortably close-to-home exploration of the Sand Creek Massacre, where the U.S. Cavalry raped, slaughtered and dismembered Native American women and children promised protection by President Lincoln. Mainstream ignorance of this event is revealed in interplay between an elementary school teacher and a Native American student.
A 1950s propaganda film extolling U.S. citizens to “duck and cover” to survive nuclear attacks sets up Elaine Romero’s eye-opening “Rain of Ruin,” in which a romantically involved Mexican-American woman and Japanese-American man work through an impasse in their relationship involving the effects of the Hiroshima bombing on his family. Dramatic interplay between GerRee Hinshaw and Peter Trinh and well-researched arguments balance out some contrived material. Noh background movement and photos keep the horror front and center.
A snappy ballroom dance featuring Adolf Hitler (Pearce) and Eva Braun (Covington), replete with footage of Nazi Germany’s first family frolicking with friends, is contrasted with audio of Eddie Cantor singing a biting requiem to war. This is followed by another round of Parks’ song and some heavy blues riffs by Roybal and Trinh that segue into the first staging of Tony Kushner’s “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy.”
Previously published in the Nation and recited at Democratic fund-raisers, Kushner’s mind-boggling fantasy of Laura Bush talking with dead Iraqi schoolchildren about the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” comes alive in Covington’s inspired perf; her impersonation and emotional vicissitudes leave the aud breathless.
Metzgar then shifts the tone in the final pieces. Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz’s “One Shot in Lotus Position” intercuts a mother’s recollections of her only child’s life with her son’s musing on his photographic work on the killing fields of Vietnam. Hinshaw’s heart-wrenching depiction of a mother’s loss and Tilghman’s passionate appeal for valuing the moment raise the personal stakes for the evening.
After a “Gumboots”-inspired version of the ensemble drill exercise explodes across the stage, Robert Lewis Vaughan’s “Weird Water” mixes visceral truths with inventive imagery to bring the Iraqi war home. Sandvold’s excruciating portrayal of a father’s pain at his son’s death brings the final transformation in an evening of multiple catharses.
The exclamation point is delivered with shots of military cemeteries and flag-draped coffins, Hinshaw’s transcendent reprise of Parks’ song and the final heart-thumping drill exercise in which the entire ensemble drums and marches in front of a video montage of fireworks. Who says the flag and the Fourth of July have been expropriated by the warmongers?