Playwrights are angry across the nation, and New York, arguably the epicenter of American culture, is no exception.
Plays about the Iraq War are popping up in theatre companies’ repertoires in abundance, creating a dialogue surrounding not only the events of the war but their effects on those who never fight – the leaders and civilians left to care for, comfort, and interact with those who have served in uniform.
Michael Weller, unafraid of thinking outside the box, simultaneously ranks amongst the scores of other playwrights tackling the War in Iraq and is stylistically different. His new play Beast is a thoroughly thought-provoking, wildly imaginative, and at times funny entity, one that defies cliche and successfully interweaves the personal and the political by tackling national and international issues through stories of individuals.
From the get-go, we’re immersed in the world of war. Masterful video projections by Tal Yarden transport the audience abruptly into the aesthetic of the play, confronting us with images of the tumult of combat that race across the screen like sequences from some twisted video game. We soon meet our heroes, Jimmy Cato and Benjamin Voychevsky (or simply “Voych”), soldiers who barely escaped a scrape with death that left each scarred and missing an arm. Voych had been presumed dead, placed in his coffin only to reawaken, and soon finds himself preferring to evade the legal consequences of his reawakening by returning to the U.S. using false paperwork. This allows him, in essence, to be invisible, his existence undocumented by the U.S. government, a status that allows for the fanciful events to come.
Billed as a “fever dream in six scenes,” Weller’s play is just that, a series of dramatic sketches coming together to make a cohesive narrative about our two protagonists as they journey from a military hospital in Germany to President George W. Bush’s private ranch in Crawford, Texas (Bush is thinly veiled as “GW” in the production’s program). Just how we as audience members are meant to view the proceedings – whether they be real or imagined – is ultimately left unstated by the writer and ought to be the source of much healthy debate amongst theatergoers. And though the play at times approaches didacticism, authentic, complex performances from a top-notch cast, headed by Corey Stoll as Voych in full-on deformed-soldier makeup and Logan Marshall-Green as Jimmy with hook hand and facial deformities, lend an integrity and an urgency to the production that might otherwise be lacking.
To the credit of playwright Michael Weller, here is a play that understands the fine line between comedy and drama, balanced delicately on a high wire between the two without faltering. Where the appearance of the George Bush character within the play could induce groans of inauthenticity, Weller uses our distance from this depiction of the commander-in-chief to his advantage, formulating an exciting discourse on the implications of American leadership in the world. And where the concept of a scene featuring two blind prostitutes threatens to veer into tactlessness, Weller gives us the character of Sherine, an insecure blind Southern prostitute who, as embodied by fresh-faced Lisa Joyce, is ultimately one of the play’s most raw, compelling characters.
Through the surreal, heightened nature of his play, Weller excuses himself from strict adherence even to his own constructed reality, but the looseness of his creation is thankfully used in bolstering the bold themes tackled here rather than in obscuring them.
The production, directed sure-handedly by Jo Bonney, is aided by Eugene Lee’s simple scenic design, the bulk of which is made up of sliding screens and flag-covered coffins emphasizing the omnipresence of those troops slain or wounded in the lives of these two disfigured soldiers. In addition, costume design by Colleen Werthmann and make-up and effects by Nathan Johnson aid the doubling of characters that allows a company of seven to embody twice as many characters.
How refreshing it is to encounter a play about current events that uses the scope of its reach to its advantage, allowing an audience to use its own imagination to grapple with national themes. But as provocative as the play is on a broad scale, it’s simultaneously supremely affecting, a concoction that ultimately adds up to a theatrical production worthy of note.
Read the musicOMH review of Michael Weller’s new play Fifty Words here.