Four New One-Act Plays Written by Four Veterans
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Presented by: The Firehouse Theatre in partnership with the Virginia War Memorial Foundation and the Mighty Pen Project; Co-Produced by David Robbins
At: The Firehouse, 1609 West Broad St., Richmond, RVA 23220
Performances: September 23 – October 30, 2021
Ticket Prices: $35 general & $30 military
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org.
We have grown accustomed to being asked for proof of vaccination and being required to wear masks inside theaters, but this is the first time I remember a pre-show warning to Veterans in the audience: These productions include moments of loud sound effects of combat, gunfire, and explosions, harsh and graphic language, and content.
I vaguely remember writing a preview about this festival back in the pre-pandemic days. Producing Artistic Director Joel Bassin shared, in his pre-show greeting, that the first reading and initial meet and greet for this festival was held in December 2019 – in the “time before.” The real deal far exceeded any expectations I may have held. The point is this festival is a collection of four new plays written by military veterans who share not only “tipping-point” life or death moments from their lives, but also, in black and white videos, the process that led them to the finished product. And these finished – or evolving – products are compelling pieces of theater that bear the imprimatur of authenticity.
In GUARDIAN ANGELS, a severely wounded Marine is rescued by an Army medivac. But this rescue is extraordinary on several levels. The Army helicopter wasn’t even supposed to be in the area, and in spite of the dire situation, author Robert Waldruff manages to wring out a moment of humor when he requires the Marine Lieutenant (Dean Knight) to utter words of respect for the rival Army rescue team. There is also a supernatural element provided by Alvan Bolling II as the Chaplain and Dani Brown who plays multiple characters wearing a traditional white nurse’s uniform. The one scene I found odd – and distracting – was the robotic voice used by the Doctor (Dean Knight). Perhaps there is a reasonable, military reason for this choice.
The first half of the program closed with SOAR, the only one of the four one-act plays written by a woman Veteran. Rachel Landsee. Irene Kuykendall was outstanding as the military lawyer and wife, Rachel. Her husband, Adam (Dean Knight) was also an officer, and the focus of SOAR included the strains military life puts on relationships, the demands made on women, especially if they become pregnant while in service, as well as philosophical discussions of the validity of sending US troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. For me, this was the most complex and layered of the four pieces, and its appeal is enhanced by the presence of a sort of Greek chorus meets four-part harmony a cappella group composed of four of the male ensemble members. SOAR turned out to be a mini-musical, powered by foot-stomping, finger-snapping military cadence, soulful rhythms, and the bluesy strains of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”
Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the Sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me…
Whereas the works in the first half of the program focused on some of the more practical, blood and guts aspects of war in sometimes poetic ways, the works in the second half tackled similar subject matter in a somewhat more abstract, yet at the same time more emotionally powered and even spiritual manner.
In BONNE ANNÉE, directed by Firehouse Producing Artistic Director Joel Bassin, playwright David M. Aldridge invites the audience to meet his inner voice. This voice, audible only to him, told him when to stop, where to look for booby traps, when the enemy was coming, and continued to serve him well after returning home. BONNE ANNÉE is staged as a monologue featuring Jonathan Hardison as David, just ten days back from Viet Nam and obviously fragile in ways yet unrevealed. As David speaks, in a surprising soft and controlled voice, he gradually reveals details of the horrors he encountered, as well as one quirky but important little detail: Bonne Année, the French phrase for Happy New Year, has been assimilated into Vietnamese culture. These two simple words take on a chilling and supernatural effect in the final moments of the play.
BONNE ANNÉE includes a few supporting roles played by Linda Beringer, Dean Knight, and Dani Brown, and a quartet of menacing Young Men (Alvan Bolling II, Erik DeMario, Jimmy Mello, and Makai Walker). As if sight and sound were not enough, BONNE ANNÉE engages the sense of smell with a pan of sizzling bacon playing a subsidiary role in a key part of David’s monologue.
Last but certainly not least, the evening closed with Chuck Williamson’s introduction to SKYLINE in which he speaks about life in Fort Polk, Louisiana, before guiding us into a story of a convoy where everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Set in Bagdad, SKYLINE is packed with endearing and very human details, such as the men playing cards for snacks, and ends with the team (Erik DeMario, Keydron Dunn, Dean Knight, and Jimmy Mello) assuming a kick-ass superhero pose that encapsulates the heart and soul of each of these characters, who are all obviously real people. The convoy may not have been a successful mission, but these four actors conveyed a genuine sense of comraderie that was unmistakable and moving.
While each play stands alone, presenting them together draws a more comprehensive picture of war and its personal consequences. The ensemble and directors started the evening in unity. All 10 actors entered and took seats on the scattered wooden crates. Their backs were to the audience as they joined us in watching Robert Waldruff’s introductory video, setting the tone and pace for the scenes that followed. WAR IN PIECES is not for the faint of heart.
“There is no movie
that can show the terror
of one little firefight.”
The set has been kept simple, with a series of boxes serving as buildings, vehicles, furniture, and other assorted props. The space is beautifully lit by Andrew Bonniwell whose camouflage shaded lighting has a three-dimensional quality, and Mark Messing’s sound score is outstanding. Transitions on opening night were surprisingly smooth, and I have no doubt that this production that will mature beyond mere theatrics as the ensemble continues to work together sharing these very personal and very graphic stories. This is the sort of production that lingers with the performers and the audience.
Irene Kuykendall made a deep impression as Rachel in SOAR. Dean Knight proved versatile in multiple roles, and showed unexpected discernment as Rachel’s husband, Adam. It was good to see Jimmy Mello onstage again, as well as Jonathan Hardison, Alvan Bolling II, and Dani Brown. Keydron Dunn may be almost unrecognizable to those who remember him from pre-pandemic productions as he cut his locs after being drafted into this production, but his distinctive voice remains the same. Linda Beringer, who has an impressive acting resume, assumed only a small supporting role here (but it did involve bacon!), and I am not yet familiar with the work of Erik DeMario or Makai Walker, both of whom are third year theatre students at VCU. I expect we will see more of them in the near future.
WAR IN PIECES
Alvan Bolling II
GUARDIAN ANGELS Written by Robert Waldruff & Directed by Foster Solomon
SOAR Written by Rachel Landsee & Directed by Kerrigan Sullivan
BONNE ANNÉE – Written by David M. Aldridge & Directed by Joel Bassin
SKYLINE – Written by Chuck Williamson & Directed by Todd Labelle
Costume Designer – Anna Bialkowski
Lighting Designer – Andrew Bonniwell
Sound Designer – Mark Messing
Set & Projection Consultant – Dasia Gregg
Choreographer for SOAR – Kayla Xavier
Dramaturg – Lindy Bumgarner
Stage Managers – Emma Avelis, Kasey Britt, Claire Bronchick, Grace Brown, Emily Vial
Festival Co-Producer – David Robbins
Festival Coordinator – Emily Vail
About 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, September 23 – October 30 @ 7:30 PM
Sundays, October 3, 17 & 23 @3:00 PM
Sunday performances include a Post-Performance Talkback
$30 military, and first responders
Photos: Bill Sigafoos
Make a one-time donation
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution in any amount is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.Donate here to
support rvart reviewDonate here to
support rvart reviewDonate here to
support rvart review