The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
August 11, 2008
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, like the main character of its title, has a daunting mission. It is a World War II play based on the five-line Randall Jarrell poem of the same name, and features interpretive movement. Randall, whom we meet in his ball turret gunner position at the rear of a B-17 bomber, reflects on his family and post while the aircraft heads for Germany to drop bombs and somehow return intact under heavy Nazi fire.
The ball turret of the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress was a swiveling glass sphere with two 50-caliber machine guns on the bottom of the aircraft's fuselage, and a perilous post to man. It was too cramped for all but the smallest of the crew and for any parachute whatsoever, and forced the gunner to contort his body into the fetal position for hours. These conditions, and certainly aerial combat in general, pose tricky problems to re-create on a stage, and it is a respectable challenge for six performers and a stool to effectively suggest the magnitude of 32.5 tons of flying metal getting shot at six miles over the earth. But if the audience's imagination is riveted, I would not put anything beyond its reach. Unfortunately, this piece has too many jarring elements that ultimately sabotage the power of its imagery.
When the aircraft is attacked, the actors form tightly together in plane battle mode and launch into sequences of sharp, repeating movements in time to a live orchestra's music. The movements are meant to suggest the actual physical activities engaged in by each crew member, in accordance with their duties. The trouble is, we haven't the slightest idea what activities require all these specific sorts of rapid crouches and arm movements through the air. I would guess that few in the audience have recently been on a bombing raid to Europe or could describe the inside of B-17. Our perception is therefore limited to distinguishing between the front of the plane (Nathaniel Kressen, playing the pilot facing upstage) and the back of the plane (Randall, the ball turret gunner, facing us), yet even the way Mike James, playing Randall, is seated comfortably on his stool doesn't seem to suggest the physical restraint, danger, and isolation inherent to that post or Randall's fears. The duties of the two characters on each side of the plane (Raquel Cion, Elisa Matula, Azhar Khan, CJ Holm) are anybody's guess—I didn't know from their movements if they were gunners, navigators, radio operators, or none of the above. The frantic pace of the mystery movements, plus the music's odd rock beat, make the air battle sequences seem awkward and seizure-like.
The rest of the play certainly lies within easier grasp of theatrical storytelling, dwelling on Randall's flashbacks about his abandoned, worried mother (Raquel Cion), deserting father (Azhar Khan), and rail-hopping sister (Elisa Matula). But playwright/director Anna Moench's dialogue and scenarios frequently get stuck in melodramatic cliché, and the ensemble does not provide enough help. Too often generalized rapture is deemed an adequate interpretation of the many passages laden with descriptive imagery. Despite the play's frequent and literal reaching for the heavens—plane battles, cloud formations—I couldn't help but feel left six miles below.