The Great American All-Star Traveling War Machine
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 28, 2008
Irondale Ensemble Project's new anti-war revue The Great American All-Star Traveling War Machine is powerful and thought-provoking; it reminds us of the extreme necessity of theatre that pokes us in the ribs and makes us really consider what's going on in the world around us rather than sit complacently by and let stuff happen. That it does so in spite of the fact that it is fundamentally unsuccessful as theatre proves the point, in a way: boy, did I want this show to be more accomplished than it actually is.
The shape of War Machine is that of an old-fashioned revue, with songs, full-fledged musical numbers, and comedy routines interspersed with sketches and vignettes. Think an intimate cabaret revue merged with Laugh-In or Monty Python's Flying Circus to get an idea of the sensibility. But the performances are scattershot and the production values are sort of alarmingly cheesy (especially the video components, and especially when the top ticket price is $40).
War is the common theme, of course, and all of the material is from documentary sources: the program insists "Everything you hear in this play is real. None of the text has been changed." This is why War Machine is ultimately so potent.
We hear, for example, one of General George Patton's speeches to his troops during World War II. It's delivered by Patrena Murray, an actress who is about as far from being George C. Scott as it's possible to be, and the effect is that we really listen to what Patton said—we listen and, if we have a conscience, we must be appalled. All kinds of talk of glory and honor intermingled brazenly with profane dismissals of the enemy's humanity: it's actually quite sick. Who's idea of a hero is this?
Similarly, the lyrics of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" are deconstructed later in the show, so that we can marvel at a poet who celebrates warfare as a way to serve God and Christ. An exchange of telegrams between Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Czar Nicholas of Russia (who were cousins) is recited, indicating that family ties don't amount to much when war fever is in the air.
Some of the segments aim for a Vonnegutian absurdity, like one where three men dance with umbrellas to the strains of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" while a projected video behind them depicts a shower of U.S. Air Force leaflets warning the Japanese about the atom bomb. This is a piece that falters badly in execution: one of the actors has an umbrella that's broken and he dances out of step with the others. But the way the piece is staged and performed, I couldn't tell whether this was intentional or not; and unfortunately that kind of thing happens over and over again throughout War Machine. Most of the performers seem to lack the skills they need to do the material justice.
And some of the material just falls flat on its own, such as a gratuitous parody of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger (including the obligatory "Let's pray, Henry!"), or a recitation of the body count in the various Rambo films. And a recreation of Jessica Lynch's 2007 testimony before a Congressional committee feels out-of-place in an evening that is otherwise very sure of its positions vis-a-vis the current war we're embroiled in.
And yet, there's some talent on display here and some of the show works satisfactorily. Welland Hardwick plays the guitar beautifully and gets to sing a haunting and affecting song about Australian casualties in World War I. Michael-David Gordon, who is also the show's musical director, leads some fine harmonizing, and he and Patrena Murray offer some rousing solos as well.
Probably nothing in War Machine hit me as squarely as the first segment, however, which is simply a litany of all of the many wars the United States has been involved in. The list ends, of course, with the War in Iraq, and as it's announced, the narrator can provide no end date for it and sounds doubtful as he identifies our opponent in this conflict. It made me think: who exactly are we fighting in Iraq these days?
And, brother, that's the kind of thinking we need a lot more of. I wish The Great American All-Star Traveling War Machine was better. It sure is necessary.