Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Since I'm getting stuck completing the second half of my New York City trip report, here (to fill those empty hours) is a review of an excellent play I saw last weekend. I'm thinking that local (Madison, Wisconsin) theatre reviews will become a regular part of the blog.

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Q: How many Vietnam veterans does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: You don't KNOW, man! YOU WEREN'T THERE!


The Vietnam War, it's safe to say, left deep scars on American culture for generations to come. And almost 30 years after it ended, we're all still trying to make sense of it. Especially the ones who - for better or worse - found themselves there, fighting it.

Now, there's a remarkable play at the Bartell that tries, not to sum up or explain away the Vietnam experience, but just to show it to us, for those of us who "weren't there." "Tracers" is a play conceived by John DiFusco, and written and constructed (through a series of workshops) by the original cast of Vietnam veterans who first performed the piece in 1980 at Los Angeles' Odyssey Theater.

There have been lots of Vietnam plays and movies, most of which have one or another political or social agenda. This one doesn't get into the politics of the war, or what it says about America. It's just individual stories of a handful of men who find themselves in a strange country, dealing with realities they would have thought unspeakable before they got there. They come from all backgrounds. Some volunteered, others were drafted. Some are good at what they do, others (as their drill sergeant ruefully tells the audience) are destined to be "targets."

We get a glimpse into these soldiers' day to day lives: they bond with each other to varying degrees; they go on terrifying patrols; they turn to women, drugs, and Hermann Hesse to escape their boredom, anger, and fear; and basically they try to survive until they "kiss the freedom bird" and head home. Along the way, you get to know these men, and feel for their impossible situation.

Did they survive and get home? The play doesn't make that explicit. Maybe all of them did; maybe none of them did and they are narrating the play from beyond the grave. That isn't the point. And thankfully, the play rejects the John Wayne, "when you stick your hand into a pile of GOO that used to be your best friend!" cliches. When Steve van Haren came on as Baby San, a green soldier transferred into combat from a desk job, I groaned inside because I just knew he was going to be killed, and horribly, to illustrate the horrors of war (most likely leading to a grandstanding speech, either "damn this unjust war!" or "c’mon, men, let's go kill those gooks!," from his comrades) - but no. Nothing happens as you would expect from the cliches of war movies.

The performances are all excellent. Darren Rogers, Caleb Arthur Stone, and Ethan Mutz project ample combat-readiness as the troop leaders; while Steve van Haren and Casey Grimm are the rookies (who are somehow never as innocent as the rookies are in John Wayne movies), and Micheal Herman is the intellectual "Professor" who tries to remain aloof from the group but finds he can't. Al Hart drops in (like a breath of fresh air) for one scene the middle of the second act as "Doc," who dispenses marijuana and somewhat questionable advice, and who is possibly the only really grounded character in the show - or is he? And Douglas Holtz makes a lasting impression as one scary drill sergeant. All of the actors make a fearless physical commitment to their roles, whether in performing a gruelling set of onstage calisthenics in the Boot Camp scene, or conveying the physical and mental tension of patrol.

Cara Peterson has done a marvelous job of directing the action and mood, from the gripping suspense of the patrol scenes to the ennui of a hot day in Vietnam with no action; she is assisted by Steve Montagna's excellent fight choreography. Also of note are the tech credits, led by John Penisten's atmospheric lighting and Ron Collins' (as always) impeccably chosen sound design, full of Vietnam-era music.

Audiences for the first weekend were lower than expected, and DEFINITELY lower than this fine show deserves, so I'm doing my best to get the word out. Don't be put off by the subject matter - this is like no other Vietnam story you've seen before. It's dramatic, it's funny, it's poignant, it's an important theatrical document for our time. Go see it!

Dates: June 6-22
Times: 7:30 Thursdays, 8:00 Fridays, and 4 & 8 Saturdays
Prices: $10 Thursdays, $12 all other shows, $2 discount for students, seniors and vets
Place: Evjue Stage, Bartell Theatre (113 E. Mifflin Street, Madison)
Reservation number: (608) 836-4963