What force drives a man who is an avid anti-war advocate in his poetry and personal stance to go back into a war he absolutely no longer believes is legitimate? Further, how could this possibly happen to two poets, two men who have developed a deep love and affection for each other? In his play Not about Heroes, Stephen MacDonald probes into the intense, internal motivations and the emotionally charged relationship of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen — the former a well-regarded, English poet and decorated war hero in the early days of World War I and the latter, a wounded soldier and would-be poet who Sassoon meets while both recover at the War Hospital for Nervous Disorders. Through both his own words as playwright and the words of each poet’s verses, Mr. MacDonald weaves an engrossing story of a mentor and a student whose friendship becomes something neither knows quite how to describe in words the times can accept. At the same time, the poems they read and recite describe in horrifically vivid yet beautifully conceived details a Great War more terrible than most textbooks or histories ever account.
When he arrives at the hospital office with a stack of poetry books in hand for the famed poet to sign for his mother and friends, Wilfred Owens is hesitant but persistent, apologetic but determined. Iestyn Ariel captures exquisitely the eager, earnest drive of a young man who knows he has words within him that must find a way to express themselves in metaphoric lines of verse. He also has first-hand witnessed the blood and guts and human waste of a war he is now compelled to describe. All he needs is a master’s guidance to help him hone his innate skill as a poet; what he does not yet know is that his teacher will become his best friend … and more.
As Siegfried Sassoon. Daniel Llewelyn-Williams is at first haughty, defiant, and even a bit scornful as yet another brain-damaged soldier comes into his office ready to seek his help. But the sharp edge in his voice softens ever so slightly as something in his eyes and now slightly smirking mouth reveal there is something attractive and intrinsically compelling in this particular young man. That he will be able to develop Owen into a renown poet — maybe one even better than himself — is still something he will come to understand. That the young man will become central to his life is something surely he cannot yet at all comprehend, but something that does seem to dawn on him during one moonlit walk on the hospital grounds: “I don’t know where either of us will go, but I am glad I am here tonight with you.” As the other other half of this stellar duo, Mr. Llewelyn-Williams is stunningly superb in his role as Sassoon.
Oliver Herman has created a set that captures the stark look of a war’s mental hospital with its walls and corners clearly representing the memories of battlefields that each of the men can never erase from their individual minds’ eyes. The lighting of Kevin Hayes strikingly drapes the effective set with the looming shadows of those memories as well as the sunshine of a relationship that develops but is hardly mentioned in words. Dyfan Jones’ sound design brings the realities of a faraway war into the presence of two men who cannot escape those sounds, even when in the safety of a hospital. Tim Baker orchestrates as director a story this is achingly beautiful with moments of humor, sparks of unspoken love, and words of glorious poetry sprinkled amongst images of human pain, angst, and fear in the faces of his principle actors.
And in the end, we come to understand, if still not wanting to accept, why two men clearly in love and surely poets for the ages are each willing to return to bullets and mortar, even for a war neither can accept.
The harsh cruelty of a war that with each passing day appears ever more endless and pointless is vividly portrayed in the words of its soldiers and in their incredibly choreographed ballet-of-sorts in Incognito Theatre’s much-acclaimed adaptation of Erich Maria Remargue’s All Quiet on the Western Front. After sold-out performances in the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and further runs in both the UK and New York, the gripping, heart-pounding production returns for an encore set of performances at Pleasance for the 2017 Fringe.
Wartime on the Western Front of World War I surely was one of history’s darkest, most frustrating, and most wasteful of human life episodes. For a group of hometown, German boys — for they are much too young in years to be yet called men even though the Front’s horrors has aged each decades beyond what they appear — the promise of adventure soon becomes a hell unimaginable. Long periods of boredom laced with fearful anticipation are suddenly punctuated by the dueling screams of missiles and of comrades and highlighted by the sights of bombs flashing and human limbs exploding. The physical demands, wears, and tears as well as the mental trials and tortures are graphically portrayed in the meticulously coordinated breaths, gasps, body movements, falls, and tumbles of this talented cast of five. While their individual moments in spotlight to tell their own stories are powerful, it is the dance that occurs of bodies trudging in uniform march, flying in explosion, and twitching in pain that tell the real stories their words cannot begin to describe. Their heartfelt comaraderie, their yearning for home and family, and their incredible ability still to find minutes for laughter and teasing are all equally portrayed both verbally and in their ongoing, choreographed movements — both subtle and all-encompassing of their physical selves (movements directed to a point of perfection by Zac Nemorin).
Roberta Zuric directs a panoramic yet intimate picture of a war too long ago for any audience member to recall but too immediate in its reminders of all the mindless conflagrations that still continue to ignite seemingly daily somewhere across the globe. Oscar Maguire’s sound design and the lighting of Will Feasey and Roberta Zuric bring the realities of the trenches and war plains shockingly inescapable into the small theatre setting. But in the end, it is the sheer physical might, courage, and darings of this cast of five along with eyes that shout their own stories, heads that turn with the fear of what might be seen, and bodies that curl in a tight ball with the hunger for a hug from home that tell the real story in a way the original novel never can. Kudos and a standing ovation go to Augus Doughty, George, John, Charlie MacVicar, Alex Maxwell, and Joe Taylor — actors who have told the stories soldiers of all sides of present and past conflagrations have so often never had a chance to convey.
In May 1924, two wealthy seniors at the University of Chicago capped off several years of increasingly serious crimes by kidnapping and murdering fourteen-year-old Robert Franks. Widely characterized at the time as “the crime of the century” by the press, the perpetrators themselves were sure they were always capable of committing the “perfect crime” since they believed thatthey were the “supermen” touted by Nietzsche, thus absolving themselves of any responsibility or guilt for their horrific actions. The story of how (and why) two, brainy members of the privileged set (each already accepted into top law schools) went from petty escapades to major arsons to murder is relayed through the unlikeliest of means in a beautifully composed, new musical full of both mesmerizing and rousing songs. Stephen Dolginoff (book, music, lyrics) takes the parole testimony given thirty-four years later by one of the perpetrators in order to create this immensely gripping but equally troubling Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story.
Ellis Dackombe is the potential parole, Nathan Leopold, who methodically, meticulously relates for the unseen parole board members details of his relationship and history with Richard Loeb. In a crystal clear voice that is ironically pure and true as it relates the ever-more disturbing episodes, Nathan sings of his own reasons for joining in Richard’s plans, as a boy and as a college student, relating in songs often sounding as if they belong in a musical of romance versus one of murder. As it turns out, his drive is for the love he has for Richard — or at least the drive for the hot, sexual encounters Richard was willing to have after the thrill of an arson, a hold-up, or especially, a potential murder of some random kid. As he beautifully sings at one point to Richard, Nathan promises, “I’ll do what you want me to do … There’s no me without you.”
Harry Downes’ Richard often has the wild eyes, the smirk, and the demeanor of a devil on earth. He demands a blood-laced signature on a contract that binds the vulnerable, supposedly weaker Nathan to be his accomplice in the ventures he plans for his own sheer excitement, again convinced he (and maybe Nathan) are of the “superior race” that he avidly reads about in his Nietzsche book. While Mr. Downs does not always have the sureness of sung vocals that Mr. Dackombe consistory displays (sometimes wavering a bit into a flat sound on sustained notes), his overall portrayal of Loeb is eerily realistic and almost creepy to behold.
Guy Retalick directs this tightly timed, edge-of-seat musical drama; and he is able to milk to the max the fine line the playwright has drawn between a story where sexual attraction, thrills, and fulfillment of two twenty-somethings bump up against a crime that can hardly be imagined as possible. Richard Williamson’s lighting is a major asset in creating the tension and intrigue of the historical events while the keyboard and sound design of Kris Rawlinson play equally important roles in ensuring a fabulously orchestrated telling of such a truly terrible event.
While I believe the overall musical is written, directed, acted/sung and produced most admirably, I am disappointed that once again a new musical/play focuses on a gay relationship that involves tragedy and a sense of sickness and can easily and justifiably lead to a feeling of disgust for the principals. In this day and time, I wish playwrights would choose stories that will help the currently shifting attitudes toward same-sex relationships change even more quickly rather than perpetuate historical and still-lingering feelings that such relationships are sickening and repulsive.
The 5th Marquis of Anglesey, born in 1875 and son to one the richest men on earth, was poised to inherit a virtual empire from his wealthy, powerful family. However, in his twenties he chose to spend money as if there were no tomorrows, which for a man who died at 29, there were few. In his brief life, this flamboyant transvestite turned a family chapel into a theatre and starred himself in extravagant productions to which no one came. At his death, he was penniless and soon forgotten since his family burned all evidence of his very existence.
Seiriol Davies recreates the Marquis’ forgotten history in a wild and quirky musical, How to Win Against History. Along with Matthew Blake and Dylan Townley, he brings the Marquis to full, glittering life in songs full of pizzazz and pageantry, in a tawdry, slightly naughty sort of way. From his days at military school in Eton (recalled in high kicks and fun times with the boys in “Boots, Boots, Boots”) to his conveniently arranged marriage with Lady Lillian in which neither had any sexual expectations of the other (“This Is What It Looks Like … A Real Couple”), the three actors sing in voices ranging from whispering high falsettos to full-out diva blasting. Lyrics often shoot out as fast and furious as bullets, and the pace is sweat-producing and laugh-ensuring throughout (thanks to the direction of Alex Swift).
Much to the probable chagrin of his surviving family, the Marquis now lives on in the full living color in his sparkling purple gown and in the flashy blinks of his mascaraed eyes.
Rating: 4 E
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Theatre Critic for the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, writing 150+ reviews annually for Theatre Eddys and Talkin' Broadway (San Jose/Silicon Valley). Read More