What Is War For?

Cal Rep's stunning-but ultimately lightweight-theatrical ride

There is no shortage of wartime horror in Among the Chosen Few, the ambitious production inaugurating California Repertory Company's new downtown Long Beach theater. Tracing war's bloody lineage from the ancient Greeks and medieval crusaders through Nazi Germany to a post-apocalyptic society, playwright Howard Burman's four plays illustrate that humanity's capacity for destruction hasn't ebbed since it was first exercised.

The point? Based on the final image of this four-hour saga-when small children appear amid carnage and the cast breaks into an uplifting hymn about preserving the Earth for future generations-the point would seem to be that the end (conquest and glory) never justifies the means (rapes, pillages, massacres and ritual sacrifices).

That tired aphorism is also a fit critique of the play. In this frequently stunning theatrical ride, spectacle can't obscure the fact that Burman's ideas never rise above the obvious: war is hell. Religious and patriotic zealotry have sparked some of history's cruelest excesses. Men of moral conviction can arise in the worst of times.

On their own, the four plays that make up Among the Chosen Few are just fine. But together? An underlying blueprint seems to be missing, as well as an answer to a big, overarching question: Why? Why does war produce our greatest leaders and our most barbaric actions? Why is so much of our killing done for God and country? Why is humankind so demonic?

Dramaturge Charles Marowitz supplies two possible answers in his customarily brilliant style. "Perhaps the most disturbing question thrown up by these plays is whether the havoc that regularly wreaks our civilization is due simply to history repeating itself or to certain indigenous flaws in human nature, which no amount of progress can ever eradicate," Marowitz said. That's something I would have liked to experience onstage, not in Marowitz's program notes.

Though I found it hard to see Burman's forest, a lot of the trees look great, thanks to Joanne Gordon's visceral, avant-garde-ish direction. This is a highly creative, visually stimulating production filled with surprises and effects, from stylized movement and sliding floors to a massive steel monolith (designed by Danila Korogodsky) and evocative lighting courtesy of David Jaques. The three-member band led by Rob Woyshner is also excellent, as is Burman's decision to use a 10-part chorus to comment ironically on the play's action.

Part One consists of "Setting Fires" and "Heirs to the Kingdom," which take place, respectively, during the Greek invasion of Troy as related in Homer's Iliad and the so-called Peasants Crusade of the 11th century. The plays in Part Two, "The Last Knight" and "White Ash People," deal with German field marshal Erwin Rommel and a post-apocalyptic society of subterraneans. Props are minimal, the same set is used throughout, and the 25 cast members (including the 10-member chorus) are draped in the same costumes of overalls of muted gray and rust colors not too far removed from concentration-camp attire. Burman's one nod to a narrative line is the character of the Old Soldier (played by Ashley Carr Jr.). He's an eternal foot soldier who, with Southern drawl and homespun wisdom, introduces each play before he takes his place within the ensemble.

The four plays are connected thematically by fanaticism-the zeal that creates the conditions for otherwise impossible atrocities-and the moral dilemmas men face when they attempt to balance social duty with individual responsibility. In "Setting Fires," for example, Agamemnon (Richard Kinsey) must decide whether to appease the gods by sacrificing a loved one. In "Heirs of the Kingdom," the tension between duty and morality is played out against the backdrop of the Peasants Crusade. This crusade, a pre-emptive strike launched in 1096 by the perhaps-apocryphal Peter the Hermit, was composed of ragtag peasant pilgrims with no military training, crude weapons, and little money and supplies. In their eagerness to reach the Holy Land, they wound up raping and pillaging throughout Eastern Europe. By the time they reached Asia Minor, they were primed for slaughter at the hands of the far-more-disciplined, battle-ready Turks.

"Heirs of the Kingdom" includes Burman's best writing and one of Gordon's finest staging moments. A woman (the magnetic Dawn K. Flood) chooses to play camp prostitute in order to keep the male pilgrims from raping the camp's virgins. As Flood acts out her subsequent dance with the fleshy devil, the chorus belts out a passionate gospel tune led by the stirring Jacqueline B. Arnold. It's anachronistic as hell-medieval death meets Mississippi Delta-but mighty effective, one of the few moments during which onstage action transcended the moment.

"The Last Knight" doesn't seem to fit. Where the other three plays feature large casts and the chorus is integral, this stripped-down version feels too slight. Kinsey once again plays the man in crisis, Rommel, whose love of duty and a greater Germany runs counter to his disillusionment with Nazi atrocities. The always versatile Peter Zapp plays the dastardly General Burgdorf, who is out to get Rommel to cop to a plot to assassinate Hitler, and Katie Johnson convincingly plays Rommel's long-suffering wife.

"White Ash People" is the only play that doesn't lean on historic or literary precedent. Instead, Burman opts for a world in which nuclear winter has fallen and humanity is forced underground. It's also the goofiest play, with Zapp and Reed Boyer (who does fine work in all four plays) serving as slapsticky stooges named the Ordinator and the Assistor. Once a year, the pair call on every village to enact a bizarre ritual of digging and lottery. The lottery, as it turns out, is anything but goofy: it's the way these people choose who will be sacrificed, à la Shirley Jackson. The key players here are April Hall (who also does fine work in all four plays, including dying not once, not twice, but thrice) and a passionate Diana Jordan as two sisters who realize the futility of the village ritual but are unable to bring themselves to rebel.

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