nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
January 7, 2009
Surrender is one of the most intense, eye-opening experiences I have ever had. This nearly four-hour interactive performance is "a simulated war deployment experience in three acts." Let me tell you about my experience.
Outside the theatre: signed a waiver and repeated an oath of sorts. Went into the lobby, issued a uniform, boots, plastic bag, and two name tags. Women separated from men and had to change as quickly as possible, putting possessions in plastic bag. Learned how to tie a square knot on the boots, no talking!, make sure all buttons are buttoned. An older British lady leaned over to me, and whispered "Congress, did I get all my buttons?" Fortunately, no one caught us talking and I gave her a quick check and under my breath told her she had.
Told to line up: Jason Christopher Hartley in charge. Learned to stand at attention and half-right (45 degrees). Did ten military push-ups. Quick test given to everyone to learn which is our dominant eye. Mine is left. But I'm right handed. Doesn't matter. I've got to learn to hold the replica rifle in my left hand. Taught to hold it at "low ready" and "high ready." Learn to shoot: turn knob to semi, pull trigger twice, knob back to safe, finger off the trigger. Learn to shoot while marching, don't look at your weapon! Someone in Squad 1 kept their finger on the trigger, so they all have to give ten push-ups, rifle on their hands. We wait in "low ready" while they do.
Divide up into squads. I'm Squad 2. Sergeant Callaghan assigns us—I'm #1, Alpha Team, "Search." Glass Houses are set up to teach us how to clear a room. Pieces of wood on the floor demarcate a room with two doors. I'm #1 so whenever Alpha Team is in front, I'm the first person into the room. Look to the corners; do NOT get stuck in the Fatal Funnel. Better to get shot on the side of the room so that the rest of my squad can enter than to get shot in the doorway and block my squad from getting in. "Search" means I'm the one to check bodies for weapons.
Now we're getting deployed to Iraq. Sounds of bombing, helicopters, sirens, so we can hardly hear Sgt. Callaghan. It is dark. My heart is pounding. When Callaghan gives the command I have to enter the room. When we were in the Glass House there weren't real walls, I could see where the "enemy" was. Now there are real walls. Sarge yells "Go!" and I march in at Low Ready and stop in the Fatal Funnel because I don't know whether to shoot or not at the Iraqi man and woman in the room. Then he pulls a gun out and as he does I shoot and move into the room and my squad comes in. We go through room after room, never knowing what to expect, up stairways, through halls. The sound is deafening, my heart is pounding. I kill three people, I search four bodies. At first I am aware that they are living actors and I am gentle. By the last body I am mechanical and unfeeling about it, I flip a body over and check the legs, crotch, waistband, arms, torso, collar—as I do so her lips part, a final exhalation, and I see how young she is, or was. Room after room—I want it to be over. Whenever my Sergeant is in front of me I feel safer—I would follow him anywhere.
In the last room I catch a reflection of myself on the metal roofing. I see myself in uniform, and it takes me a second to realize that that is Julie, and I am Julie. I have been part of the squad, I have not thought about myself as an individual. An Iraqi woman we thought was harmless pulls a weapon. The red-haired girl in my Beta squad goes down. I shoot the assailant and she goes down but then Sarge tells me I've been hit too, and that I should get down and they'll take care of me and I'll be okay. Red-haired girl is lifted off, and our Team Leader Ibarra has me put an arm around her and we make our way to the medical unit and they decide I am okay.
Intermission. We drink beer. Director Josh Fox gives out cigarettes to anyone who wants. We're going home! Get on the plane, go home. I get a medal. Military funeral, we all recite words about honor and living as a hero. I don't buy it, but others do. Participants called up to perform in simulations with the actors about how vets adjust to normal life. See a lot of different scenarios. The most poignant is a soldier who goes into a job interview. The room is set up like the Glass Houses of our training. The people at the job interview talk about missing staplers and inane office talk. The soldier looking for a job sees not a boring office but all of the ways an insurgent can get into the room. A soldier will never see the world the same way.
There is no moral or political judgment inherent in Surrender. I know I never, ever want to be in the Army. Nor do I agree with this war. But I do have tremendous respect for those who choose to—it is a courage I do not possess.
Josh Fox, who conceived, directed, and co-wrote the production with Jason Christopher Hartley, has impeccably organized this experience and uses the space ingeniously. More than 30 performers, each with perfect physical control, have created this simulation and made it a reality. The conviction of the performers makes this experience real. If the point of theatre is to let you see the world through someone else's eyes, then I have never seen a production that accomplished this as well as Surrender. Fox, Hartley, and Surrender's brilliant team of performers and designers have created a new kind of theatre, more powerful, complex, terrifying, and eye-opening than I have ever seen.