St. Ann’s Warehouse, located in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, is a venue that does consistently superlative work, especially of the sui generis type. Over the years it’s presented everything from Lou Reed’s live re-creation of his Berlin album to Les Freres Corbusier’s spooky Hell House, from the Wooster Group‘s multimedia extravaganzas to puppet festivals decidedly not for children.
Currently, St. Ann’s is presenting National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, one of the very few successful—both artistically and commercially—plays about the Iraq War. Recounting the experience of soldiers from the Black Watch (the oldest serving Scottish regiment), the show is evenly split between scenes in a pub, when a group of ex-soldiers talks to a journalist, and Iraq itself. Okay, I have to admit that while I admired the show, I didn’t love it. I mean, I liked it a lot, but I also don’t think it’s the masterpiece everybody says it is. Mostly it’s because of Gregory Burke’s script: The veterans are undistinguishable and it’s hard to remember who’s who; the connection between their civilian and military selves is never established strongly enough to make me care. The language itself, rooted in journalistic verisimilitude, also lacks the poetic power needed to elevate the play from reportage to art.
But—and that’s a big “but”—there are absolutely thrilling moments in the production, and they are the non-verbal ones, thanks to director John Tiffany’s remarkable work.
First, the set-up: The audience is seated on both sides of the rectangle-shaped “stage,” looking down on the action as if observing from the vantage point of either a medical gallery or a Roman-like arena. This creates a feeling of simultaneous distance and proximity. You’re looking at the men going through hell, remote but still involved. The props, such as a versatile pool table, are few: You are meant to use your imagination, to fill in the blanks.
Also going against the naturalistic dialogue are the instances of…well, pure movement is a way to describe it. My absolute favorite moment is when the soldiers read letters from home, acting out stylized gestures, like dancers in military fatigues. This choreography of loss and pain is absolutely stunning, and worth the price of admission on its own. (And if you think you don’t like modern dance, you can then say you actually enjoyed a modern-dance performance.)
Perhaps the answer to the conundrum of staging an Iraq War show, then, is to forsake words and go for something completely primal.
As a final note, vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars can see the show (which has been extended until December 21) for free. Go to the St. Ann’s site for details.