Bury The Dead @ Connelly Theater, New York

cast list
Jeremy Beck, Fred Berman, Mandell Butler, Donna Lynne Champlin, Jake Hart, Jeff Pucillo, Matt Sincell

directed by
Joe Calarco
Audiences are in for a surprise when off-Broadway company Transport Group’s revival of Irwin Shaw’s 1936 anti-war play Bury the Dead begins.

The house lights are still on, but a frenetic Donna Lynne Champlin as Our Host (as she’s billed in the program) is chattering away on-stage, eventually walking out into the audience to distribute cookies (“store-bought,” she tells us apologetically, “It’s mortifying; I just didn’t have the time!”).

Our host also wants to tell us how she feels about fallen soldiers in Iraq. She’s an out-of-control George Stephanopoulos fan, religiously tuning into his ABC show This Week each Sunday to hear him read the list of names of the dead out of respect.
As we find her, she’s standing on the stage of a local school auditorium – in the wake of a school election – as she preps for (and eventually holds) a town hall meeting where we’re members of the audience. Little Mary Jane, favored to win the class election, has been defeated, so she’s in charge of the slideshow.

Wait! you may say. I thought you said this play was from 1936! Wouldn’t that make it about World War II? What’s with the reference to George Stephanopoulos? I thought he was a Clinton-era public figure?! I’m getting there.

You see, the premise is that Mary Jane – precocious as she is – has given our host a copy of Bury the Dead (which our host presents to us with a flourish), which will be part of this weeks’ town hall meeting. Members of the audience to be determined will read it aloud. She chooses four planted “volunteers” from the audience, and two others join in spontanously as the performance progresses. At first, their line readings are stilted and amateurish, but soon their momentum builds and the townspeople – despite a few minor spats between them – are caught in the fervor of the material.

Shaw’s play, we discover once their impromptu reading is sufficiently underway, is about six soldiers killed in World War II who continue to walk the earth and won’t allow themselves to be buried.

Though the original Broadway production of the play featured a cast of thirty-two actors on-stage, this production features only seven; soon it’s apparent just how this will play out. Each male actor takes on a variety of roles, including those of the not-quite-fallen soldiers. Gleefully taking on the role of narrator, our host at first seems as if she’ll remain at a remove from the proceedings, content to read the stage directions with relish and present background music on a boombox. But soon what starts as a harmless town hall playreading morphs into something stranger, darker, and more dramatically satisfying.

As they continue with their reading, plunging deeper and deeper into the text, the actors set up makeshift stand-ins for the six fallen soldiers, constructed out of rifles, combat helmets, and boots. Despite the attempts of businessmen and journalists, the soldiers refuse to rest, so the women in their lives are conjured in an attempt to get them to rest peacefully.

As the male actors definitively take on the soldier characters and shed the others, they don the assembled boots and helmets and brandish their weapons. Our host attempts to escape, but she soon finds she’s trapped in the theatre. One of the soldiers calls to her; she drops her script. She’s no long our host. Now she’s Bess, one of the soldier’s girls. Soon she’s Joan. And Julia. And Catherine. One minute she’s a mother, the next a sister.

After spending about a third of the production’s one hundred or so minutes on this misguided modern-day framing device, finally we’re allowed to focus without distractions on Shaw’s text as written. A bit florid for today’s audiences, it packs more of a wallop than the heavy-handed exposition that brings us to the meat and potatoes of the evening, and Donna Lynne Champlin shines in the six roles she takes on opposite the soldiers. For each, she creates a distinct personality, altering the inflection of her voice and her posture to suit her personality.

If there’s a reason to see the production, it’s her. Though she’s too bombastically flaky from the start as our host, once she’s called on to embody more vivid characters, she’s a powerhouse with whom to be reckoned. The men of the company match her well. It’s not the actors’ fault that the showy tactics of director Joe Calarco (who’s also credited with writing the framing piece, which is entitled A Town Hall Meeting in the program) overwhelm the central text.

One can see some of the parallels between this play and what’s going on today in Iraq, but it’s unclear exactly why this one was chosen. The soldiers here express frustrations not unlike those held by combatants today. “They made a speech, played a trumpet, and dressed me in a uniform. And then they killed me,” one of the soldiers says of his army.

Surely that’s a relatively timeless sentiment, but the trappings tacked onto the play are unnecessary; if the play has resonance to modern audiences, it ought to be apparent in a straightforward reading of the play. If Transport Group wanted to get at the issues facing Americans as the Iraq War drags on, one wonders why they didn’t take a braver, bolder approach and devise their own piece. After all, new work is necessary for a new generation, no matter how useful it is to reexamine tried and true plays.

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