Oh What War
nytheatre.com review by Kelly Aliano
September 12, 2008
In the press release for her play Oh What War, Mallory Catlett provides an explanation for creating this work: "to expose the inherent contradiction in war between sensory experience and mythic representation." This play attempts—and succeeds at—staging both the incomprehensible violence and destruction inherent in war as well as its seemingly contradictory ability to bring people together. It is a thrilling, complicated, and thought-provoking multimedia music, dance, and performance piece about the horrors of modern warfare.
Oh What War, conceived and directed by Catlett, is all about environment—from the moment the door closes and the lights go down, you are in the trench, just beneath the surrounding war. Although most of the images drawn on for the piece seem to be World War I-inspired, there is the sense that this war is any war—and every war—that has happened, or could happen, in the technologically-deadly modern world. You find yourself company to a mismatched group of war deserters. This group includes an androgynous young German named Bunnich who has been severely wounded by a bullet, a blinded prostitute named Flooze, a mysterious man named Merz who can speak the languages of many nations but does not profess to be from any particular country, a soldier who is still more of a boy than a man named Bertie, a former medic named Cuthbert now intent upon building a captain from discarded war materials, and Hennings, a young woman who describes no particular history for herself or her role in relationship to the war. These are people who have fled the war and are now hiding out in this hole, seemingly waiting for the war to end, or for their own personal demise, whichever comes first. Despite the fact that they have ostensibly escaped the war in one sense, they are also people who will never be free from it. They permanently carry the scars of war—physical, mental, and emotional—never again to be who they were before the war broke out.
The play is Brechtian to some extent. The use of television screens is incredibly alienating; we know they are anachronistic in a First World War setting, as well as highly unlikely in an electricity-less underground hole. In addition, they intensify some didactic sequences—for example, the televisions are used to provide a slide show in a scene in which the characters educate the audience about the genesis of the Great War. There is also the overwhelming sense that these characters speak with a level of historical perspective—they are well-versed on the history of their war (if indeed it is the 1910s and WWI is the war being fought) and there is acknowledgment in the presentation of later warfare, notably the landing at Normandy in 1944. It does not seem as if the audience is meant to get lost in a vicarious emotional experience with these individuals.
The technical aspect of this show—a tremendous component of the performance—also serves another vital purpose. Despite its distancing capacity, the use of certain theatrical tricks forces the audience into the feeling that they too are now trapped in the war. There are fences all around, the sound of gunfire is everywhere, and smoke pours into the theatre. The concept, described in the program as: "A fantasy of flagrant disobedience to authority. . .an underground entertainment performed by a band of deserters stuck in No Man's Land" is exceptionally executed. Catlett's direction is flawless, never allowing for a break in the mood or tone of the piece. The concept is applied with remarkable consistency, with every aspect, from the lighting design, to the costumes, to the ever-present sound/noise design serving the overall aesthetic perfectly. The play dissolves any clear concept of time and is a representation of the myriad ways these individuals have found to pass the hours. The events could cover only the 90 minutes of the performance or span months.
The performances are incredibly compelling. Each actor infuses his/her character with the right balance of individual identity and existential anonymity. These are specific people with specific histories, but the work constantly reminds the audience that this could be any of us—and in some way, is about all of us. When Cuthbert references the death all around, he gestures to the audience.
In this way, the play accomplishes Catlett's goal of displaying the dichotomy in humanity's conception of war. There is a strong distinction between the actual experience of the war, made clear through the play's many sensory elements, and the way in which "war," as an idea, or as a piece of history, is comprehended. A telling scene has Bertie playing a war video game. His pleasure-activity is a virtual reality version of the war he was so desperate to escape. He intricately describes how the controller allows the player to navigate through the imaginary war. As he does so, on stage projections show footage of actual soldiers coming to the frontlines and being shot down. This sequence shows how "war" can provide a source of enjoyment, when the actuality of it is dismissed, ignored, or misunderstood, while maintaining an understanding of war as a confrontation with the absolute worst of humanity's capacity for violence and destruction.
Although a single play can do almost nothing to bring an end to a specific war—much less destroy the overall concept of war or society's desire to make war—it is important that art not turn a blind eye to the reality of the world in which it exists. This piece's greatest triumph is in its honest artistic reflection and representation of the nature of modern warfare. It forces its audience to face war first hand, and uses every artistic tool in its power to make us believe that we are there. We can no longer ask, "oh what war?" because the war is staring us right in the face.