A.C.T. recently took on the role of being a test case for use of the Armory's enormous Drill Court space. As we discussed earlier in the week, the theater company needed a space about this massive in order to mount the National Theatre of Scotland's ambitious war play, Black Watch. And the result is a pretty stunning piece of theater in a space that probably should have come to life like this sooner.
The production is done in an arena setting, with stadium seating on two sides, and a lengthy court in the center in which the dozen male actors do their drills, discuss their sorrows, and tell the frustrating, complicated, seemingly pointless story of the Iraq War. Many of us have heard stories of the Iraq War many times already, in films like The Hurt Locker, Green Zone, and In the Valley of Elah. But it's interesting to hear a non-Hollywood, unvarnished perspective on the unpopular war as seen through the eyes of a foreign platoon one who speaks a heavily accented English and is even more unsure than any American soldiers were of why the hell they were even there.
It's a well conceived, expertly executed work of modern theater that deserves the most praise for its deft mix choreography, video, song, and ingenuitive stagecraft. Director John Tiffany allows this group of men plenty of room to make us feel the rhythms of their moving convoys, and the space of their desert camps. He also diverts us into moments of movement, almost like dance numbers but not quite, in which the men act out the emotions of being far from home, and the chaos of constantly being under attack by invisible, and often suicidal enemies. It's a piece filled with sound from soft Scottish folk songs to heart-stopping explosions and it's impossible not to be moved.
Also, the fact that it's being performed in a space that was once actually used for military drills, in a Moorish military fortress of a building, is evocative on its own.
One especially effective sequence tells the 300-year history of the Black Watch, the traditional Scottish regiment that had been deployed into hostile tribal and colonial situations on behalf of the British Empire since the time of the American Revolution. A half dozen men carry a seventh man aloft, changing his costume piece by piece and setting him back on the ground, from the original kilted uniform of the 1770s to the present day. All that remains of their traditional garb is a single red feather piece on their caps, but part of what this play is about deals with how the culture of the Black Watch, and how Scotland's affection for their existence, was torn asunder by this one war.
While non-fans of war stories might find themselves a little bored with parts of the tale it is, after all, a pretty familiar narrative at this point, filled with IEDs and hopelessness such boredom never lasts more than a couple minutes. The piece keeps going at a steady clip for its entire hour and fifty minutes (no intermission), and the changing modes, and sounds, keep it constantly stimulating.
We look forward to seeing this space used this well again in the near future.
Black Watch plays through June 16th at the Armory Community Center, 14th and Mission. Get tickets here.