War and Tears: or, vaudeville for veterans at Krannert

NURSE: [to a stretcher case with a bandaged head] Don’t worry. We’ll soon have you back at the front.

This must be said first and foremost: I love Oh! What A Lovely War. Not the radio play, not the 1969 film, not the idea behind Illinois Theatre’s production up now at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, but the production itself. When you put yourself in the rhetorical position of reviewing, you are partly asking yourself essentially whether there was anything that could be done to help a play achieve the goals it sets for itself. Last night, despite the bitter cold and first flakes of snow, was one of those rare moments when I as both a teacher and a playgoer was fully warmed by a theatrical experience.

And this is certainly not a play that attempts to warm you in any way. A “musical entertainment” composed in the early ’60s by Joan Littlewood and Charles Chilton, it is a biting inditement of both our willingness to be a party to if not the cogs of warfare in war time, but also a critique of our resistance to the notion that war is part of our life stories in peace time. It is cyclical, generational, and has informed all of our lives to a unique degree since WWI, the focus of this production. Generically framed as a vaudeville act—that is mixing of specialty acts such as burlesque comedy with song and dance features—the trivializing tenor of the form underscored our own blasé when it comes to the material immediacy of warfare. The production also scaled up the vaudeville form by applying multimedia as a useful tool in an already medley form. One wall of the blackbox theatre was entirely take up with floor-to-ceiling projections of actual battle footage, and during the course of the production attrition data was chalked over it.

The maquette model for Krannert’s staging of “Oh! What A Lovely War.”

All the smarter was the decentering of power effected by the vaudeville form—where there is no protagonist or central characters with which to associate, but rather a number of figures and MCs—as well as the general movement the production required. Programs were handed out only after the production, as throughout the long benches we used to sit were continually moved and repositioned underneath us, sometimes again used for seating but as often used as platforms for dancing. There was no central location in the theatre from which a narrative emanated. The two other sides were used as sets, one as a board room for military deliberations and the other replicating a trench. The final wall had a live band, conducted by Cara Chowning, from which actors intermittently pulled instruments and performed themselves. In this way the play suggested that while there are certainly leaders in war, we followers, we that make up the nations of the war games direct where we choose to locate centers of power.

But perhaps what I loved best about the production is that it overtly (and not merely seemed, as in 44 Plays for 44 Presidents) targeting the immediate concerns of Krannert’s ethical constituency: the undergraduates. The announcement to turn off your cellphones was a complex one, teasing the undergrads about debating to leave after intermission knowing they were there for class credit. It also interrogated openly whether the University of Illinois had any business putting on plays critiquing warfare at all—made especially poignant as it was the day after Veterans’ Day. Furthermore, this was presentational theatre: that kind of theatre not interested in storytelling and narrative relate-ability, but rather that kind of theatre that works as a “site of passage for those immense analogical disturbances in which ideas are arrested in flight at some point in their transmutation into the abstract,” according to Antonin Artaud. It would have certainly been a production Artaud would have liked, cruel in its relentless marking of millions upon millions of deaths to absolutely no gain. As the University of Illinois celebrates the 100th anniversary of World War I’s start with a number of events, lectures, and exhibitions, I actually felt connected in an authentically disturbing way with this part of world history.

I am going to confess something here: when it is a really good play, something that fundamentally shifts or rattles the way I look at the world, I cry. I usually can make it out of the theatre, but then I typically need to walk home, weeping all the way. I’m not sad, but rather this is my reaction to being emotionally overwhelmed by art. When I first visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome, I pretty much saw nothing of it because I couldn’t stop from tearing. I did the same when I left the Steppenwolf production of Good People, and the Court Theatre production of Titus Andronicus; it’s just my tell. At the end of the production, Thom Miller as the MC shattered the fourth wall by removing his bowler hat and detailing all the members of his family, from great grandfathers in the Great War to brothers in our wars, who served in the military. Then every single actor in the very large (and impressively balanced) ensemble stood against the projection wall, stated there name and their lineage in warfare rather than taking bows, rather than evacuating the seriousness of the experience. There were stories of grandfathers just missing boats that sank, fathers leaving camps just before they were obliterated, siblings serving in foreign wars and others disallowed to serve because of their race. I started to loose it when one young man confessed being the great grand son of General Patton, and then was nearly lost when the last in the line, Mark E. Fox, articulated that he himself had served as a marine for six years. And rather than taking an applause, the cast remained behind encouraging attendees to chat about their families, their stories as connected to the history of war we all share.

The student performers, rather than taking bows or applause, instead rose to the seriousness of the drama by each describing their war heritage.

I walked all the way home in the 29-degree air, not bawling but sniffling, thinking about my younger brother and only sibling, Jacob. He’s in his early 20s still, and had there been a draft in our lifetime, as a soccer and football star he would have been one of the first to go I’m sure. I thought about both of my grandfathers, one with six brothers and the other four, all of whom served in either the Korean or Vietnam wars. I thought about the handful of band geeks from high school who ended up doing military service. Usually any student that I have that also comes from Hawai’i are military kids, and I couldn’t help but think about them, too. The play didn’t make me angry that war existed (though certainly partly), but rather by interrogating the ways in which war has been woven into our heritage, our identities, so much so that it is only a passing consideration. If you only go to one thing at Krannert this year, make it this play. That’s all I can say.

  • Illinois Theatre‘s production of Oh! What A Lovely War plays in the Studio Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus 6-16 November 2014.
  • Note, there is absolutely no late seating for this production due to experimental seating (trust me, I’ve tried).
  • You can also download the program for this production; and consider attending a special roundtable talk-back with MFAs and graduate students about the production this Friday.


Ensemble Timing: a look back at Krannert’s 2012-2013 Season

We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country.

– Ned Weeks, from Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart

In the past few weeks, the Department of Theatre at the University of Illinois announced there upcoming seasons of drama and opera at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Both operas are later 19th-century retellings of classical material: Verdi’s Falstaff and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. With new director Jeffrey Eric Jenkins at its helm–who comes to UIUC from the Tisch School at NYU–the theatre program will be offering not one but two Shakespeare plays from contrasting points in the bard’s career and both very recently adapted for film: The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing. Three award-winning plays from the late-2000s with explicit investments in the negotiations between gender and class provide counterweight to these traditional offerings: Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire (2006), Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer winner Clybourne Park (2010), and Theresa Rebeck’s O Beautiful (2011). The innovation under Jenkins’ direction will be The Sullivan Project, an as-yet unnamed new play that actors and faculty will develop from the ground up over a three-year period. In looking forward to the 2013-2014 season, I thought this would make as good a time as ever to reflect back on this past season at Krannert consider this period of transition in the program.

As a playgoer, the strengths of the season were marked in two areas: formally in explorations of satire, and performatively in ensemble technique. The two satires that bookended the season were 44 Plays for 44 Presidents and the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete World of Sports (Abridged). While the later featured the original writers and cast of the Reduced Shakespeare Company themselves, the former recreated the sketch improv stylings of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, one of my favorite late-night treats when I lived in the city. In a department that follows classical training formulae, the excitement of the ensemble cast in doing something scenting of the avant-garde was palpable. And the preparedness of what was once improvised comedy really seemed to work for the group as a whole, perhaps as a useful hinge between formal experiment and the trappings of drama as such. And while the topicality of the production–which I saw a week before the 2012 presidential elections–seemed a bit heavy-handed personally (Illinois voter registration cards were handed out at the encore), for once Krannert seemed to be targeting the immediate concerns of their ethical constituency: the undergraduates. That this might have been the first election many of them would have voted in (if voting at all), it made drama seem exigent to the two young men seated in front of me. At the start they were the most interested in the intermission as a means of escape from this requirement for their online theatre appreciation course. (How can something like that even exist‽) They stayed to the end. But the back-end of the season spoiled me as well. A huge fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), I was thrilled that Krannert brought the original cast in, demonstrating what tight collaborative composition and an investment in group pacing to effect humor could look like. It is almost impossible for me to think objectively about the performance: coming in late, I got an aisle seat about five rows from the front. This meant that I was called up in the last set of scenes to represent France, Jamaica, and participate in the running of the bulls in their presentation of the Olympics on the heals of London last summer. I even enjoyed a brief exchange with the RSC boys via Twitter! This is all to say that generically the most successful points of the season for me were topically exigent, satiric in tenor without disaffect, and privileged the ensemble structure.

The romanesque amphitheater that ornaments the entranceway to the four indoor performance spaces of the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Despite acoustically satisfying concert halls and playhouse spaces in the Krannert facility, the musical offerings of the theatre and opera programs are typically inconsistent experiences. This year took up the semi-absurdist bite of early 20th-century opera as a thematic cornerstone to My Fair Lady, Spring Awakening, and The Threepenny Opera. Each featured a solid male principal: Timothy Renner as Henry Higgins, David Kaplinsky as Melchior, and Rick E. Calk III as Macheath, respectively. Strong performers all, they lent depth to their characters and carved out space to demonstrate subtle evolutions over the course of the narratives. I struggle increasingly with the unevenness the principal or “leading man” dramatic structure presupposes as a playtext for its eventual actors: that some will be better than others, so best give your top four players (a leading and supporting man, a leading and supporting lady) the lines and let the chorus fill in the rest. It’s a model the Oscars and many major awarding institutions still privilege; the Academy Awards very noticeably does not include any ensemble awards while SAG does. My own first career choice was to be a Broadway pit musician. In the high school and local university productions I played for, it always struck me that their seemed an odd disconnect between the intensely collaborative process in the pit–with most players doubling and tripling instruments–while the musical format drew stark class lines between the leads and the chorus. Musical scores very rarely feature instrumental soloists, while the vocal arrangements are intensely shaped by solos and duets. (I think Gilbert and Sullivan, on the other hand, had a better sense of how to diversify their song types between solos, duets, and ensemble pieces.) These kinds of “principal” musicals that the season featured also don’t seem to present useful teaching laboratories, where students have to relationally negotiate their performances. This meant our men were strong, had been clearly conscientious about rehearsal, but the seams began to show on those shoals where dramatic acting techniques and musicality met–namely in that they were being asked (and in some cases forced) to carry the majority of the performance, blocked and lit in ways that suggested to the audience that all of our emotional investment must be in the principals alone.

Interestingly enough, both the set of musical works mentioned above and the rest of the drama season were all explicit social critique and employed the “lead” or “principal” model. Now it is only fair to say that a theatre department, unless in commissioning new work, doesn’t have much say over this formal component except in their selection process. However, it seems relevant that in the last decade the plays receiving the most critical attention and commendation are heady ensemble works. As a case in point, Tracy Letts’ last decade of writing and performing and film has brought forth a number of Tonys and Pulitzers. In light of the succulently exigent productions of 44 Presidents and RSC, the rest of the season felt especially dated in the kinds of social critique they proposed. Bald value claims are no use in reviews, I know, but Liz Lochead’s 1985 adaptation of Dracula had no heart despite the stunning set design and mechanics, and no purchase on the state of feminism nearly thirty years in its future. Similarly, Cafe Variations by the visiting Siti Company promised much with its vignette construction. As a concept first developed in the late 80s, its mediations on urban love starting to ring with commonplaces Carrie Bradshaw would find quaint. No Child…was a different matter. A one-woman show written and performed by Nilaja Sun back in 2007 when the former president’s education legislation drove my own mother out of a 25-year career in public education to the private sector, it was hard to align its message next to the Chicago Public School picket lines and closures happening a few hours away. This is not to mention the  majority of parts were being performed by students reared under No Child Left Behind teach-to-the-test legislation. Dispersing the single role into a dozen or so seemed the only logical choice, but the fact that the students playing students who were products of the source of critique toyed with a perhaps unintentional verisimilitude that seemed both too-soon and not-soon-enough.

But I started this discussion by saying there were two areas the theatre department excelled at this season and I think is indicative of the program in the last four years–the latter being ensemble technique. And as I have mentioned  above in terms of the plays themselves as well as performance, timing matters. Larry Kramer’s 1985 The Normal Heart is experiencing quite the second life across the country, beginning with having won Tonys for a revival two years ago. The play powerfully enjambs the moral mire of the AIDS epidemic and the male gay community as separate but entwined phenomena. While its initial iteration won acclaim for the exigency of the first issue, queer rights now coordinate production choice. This production found that sweet spot between privileging ensemble and individual performances, and pitched high on both counts. Leading the fray was first-year MFA Neal Moeller as Ned Weeks. Both explosive and vulnerable, I have my fingers crossed he is cast as Prospero and Jacques next season as he seems well equipped to give them a complex and resonant melancholy. A junior in the program, I was impressed by the sensitivity Nick Narcisi gave to his Judas in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and was pleased to see that refined and less sentimentalized in his suave and sympathetic Felix Turner. But my favorite scene from the season was first-year MFA Thom Miller as Bruce Niles, a closeted bank president who looses not one but two lovers in the course of the play. In it, he describes the death of his second beloved while on a plane to his mother’s. So ill, they are nearly blocked, and once in midair, his beloved becomes violently incontinent, dying before they can land. Bruce has to pay a man to steal the body from the plane and put it in a garbage bag so that he can take him home, he not having any familial legal rights. Its a disturbing monologue as text alone, which I would imagine poses the challenge of over- or under-playing emotions, if you can even decide on which palette to select. Like Moeller, Miller struck a balance between violent anger and devastating vulnerability, vacillating gently between the two to make his story seem as if it was possible in this day, not simply an antiquated form of prejudice we moderns have risen above. My own work necessitates that I see the timeliness of historical contexts; I’m invested in the idea that a work doesn’t have to resonate with my particular set of life experiences or political exigencies to have meaning. In this Krannert season, however, I was most captivated by those works absolute in their exigency, unreservedly of and for the moment, asking me to reconsider those potential affordances available, even if ephemeral, in theatrical topicality.

  • For more on early English drama and the paradox of topicality, I recommend David Bevington’s Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968) and Leah Marcus’s Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
  • Detailed descriptions of the upcoming season will be available on Krannert’s website on Thursday, July 18th. Tickets will go on sale to the general public on August 10 at 10am; the box office is open seven days a week from 10am to 6pm.
  • For descriptions of this past seasons offerings and PDFs of programs, visit krannertcenter.com.