A NEW MEANING OF ‘UNDERGROUND’
by Kestryl Lowrey
published September 19, 2008
now playing Off Broadway at
HERE Arts Center
through October 4
You step out of the lobby and into the trenches. Under dim lights, the smells of dirt and timber assault your nostrils. A pool of muddy water offers dull reflections of the surrounding encampment, a mess of WWI-style equipment
and furniture scavenged from the battlefield. Numerous television monitors interrupt the clutter,
but they do not interfere with the anti-nostalgic temporality of the set so much as complicate it. This is Oh What War, and while it seems like it’s then, it might as well be now.
Conceived and directed by Mallory Catlett and written by Jason Craig,
the piece excavates the conflicts of resistance and resignation within the belly of the war machine. Springing in part from Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War
(which used song, clowning, and visual projection to chronicle the folly and atrocity of WWI), Oh What
War examines the contradictions of war by prioritizing sensory experience over glamorized mythologies and heroic tales. Using history in a totally fictitious manner, Catlett appeals to irrationality to reinvigorate
Alongside us in the trenches, the ensemble is disarming in their
defiance, resignation, and frustration. A rag-tag band camped in No Man’s Land, the deserters
have defected from as many armies as there are characters. The program notes, “this is a multilingual performance for which you are fluent in
all languages,” which is to say, there’s enough English that monolingual Americans can easily follow it, and enough French, German, Italian,
Czech, and whatever else to keep it interesting. In times of war, understanding the language can
be irrelevant to the absurdity.
The production is decidedly multimedia: Catlett’s direction and
Craig’s writing are complemented by the acoustic arrangements (for tuba, toy piano, accordion, and ukulele!) by Lisa Dove, video designer
Zbigniew Bzymek’s mash-ups of cinematic and documentary WWI footage, and noise artist G. Lucas Crane’s palette of sound, noise, and historic
text. These components converge in evocative moments: the deserters invoke the battlefield
explosions overhead by tossing handfuls of dirt and mud into a pool of water, while the TV monitors portray the carnage of war. Artillery
echoes in the background, the whole event driving a sensory overload which characterizes the production.
Oh What War gives us the
problem, but it doesn’t give us any answers. But how could it? In the face of the incomprehensible magnitude of war, no single piece has the capability of resolving its
horrors. Merely raising the violences of war may not ameliorate them, but it can revitalize the
possibilities of irrational and irreverent refusals.
kestryl.lowrey @ stageandcinema.com