Billy Bishop Goes to War is just that: a story of one man's journey into, and through, World War I. Though it delves some into the brutal realities of war, it's more about the man. Like generations before him and since, he is caught up in the politics of his day and asked to take up arms — in his case, for king and country.
Written and composed by John Gray, in collaboration with Eric Peterson, the play, told primarily through humor and song, is about real-life Canadian William Bishop, the decorated World War I pilot who found fame as an ace to rival the Red Baron. (Germans referred to Bishop as Hell's Handmaiden.) Gray and Peterson's story traces Bishop's journey from illness- and accident-prone nonachiever to focused and competitive flier and shooter.
He wasn't a reluctant soldier, but he didn't really know, or think about, what he was getting into. He wanted adventure, wanted to fight, wanted to be a hero. Somehow it didn't seem like war at all, Bishop (played by Grant Fletcher Prewitt, a third-year actor in UMKC's graduate-theater program) sings at the start. But that's before he gets to Europe and faces combat.
Directed by John Rensenhouse, this collaboration of the Kansas City Actors Theatre, UMKC Theatre and the National World War I Museum is basically a one-person show. Prewitt portrays not only Bishop but also a number of other characters he meets over the course of the war — superior officers, fellow soldiers, a drunk man in a bar (a significant chance meeting), even the influential Lady St. Helier (who sets him on his course). I lost count of just how many people Prewitt plays, and some of the depictions were themselves memorable. His accents — Australian, German, French, English — weren't tone-perfect every second, but that's being picky. The play often calls for Prewitt, as Bishop, to carry on a conversation with more than just one other character, and transitions between them were typically swift.
As the play moves between talk and song, Prewitt gets assistance from Cary Mock, who joins him onstage as the "Piano Player," an occasional sidekick and one-person Greek chorus.
Aerial combat was new then, as were the machine guns used by German troops. Bishop longed to get out of the mud, away from the hopelessless and futility of the ground war and into the air, though prospects for survival weren't better up there. But Bishop talks about feeling free and invincible, despite the frequent crashes, the at-first too-heavy planes, and the superior aircraft of the Germans. And his fear in battle was met with adrenaline.
The set, designed by Kerith Parashak, consists mainly of a crashed, nose-down biplane, on which Bishop sits or stands for much of the play. With simple platforms and a white backdrop (and effective lighting by Douglas Macur), it's all that's needed to tell this story.
It's an entertaining and mostly funny show, as odd as that sounds given the subject matter. We watch as Bishop transforms from civilian in a peaceful culture — Nobody shoots no one in Canada, he sings — to combatant, killing an enemy who is killing his comrades and trying to kill him. Bishop does what is asked of him, but mostly he wants to survive, get home to his girl, grow older.
And the real Bishop? He would help train the next generation of fighter pilots when it was their turn to go to war.