At the Coterie, Red Badge Variations riffs on Stephen Crane's iconic Civil War novel to capture a realistic (but teen-friendly) glimpse into the lives of five soldiers deployed during the war on terror.
The production strikes a curiously jingoistic opening note: Director Kyle Hatley paces the soldiers through a stylized display of chest-thumping and hooah chants in their Afghan bunk. Under Art Kent's expressive lights and snaking shadows, their rituals suggest something primal, even mystical.
But to playwright Melissa Cooper, the realities of war are anything but.
The Coterie commissioned her script to open its 35th season, and Cooper succeeds in reimagining Crane's soldiers in a modern context. Some things haven't changed: the Molotov cocktail of frayed nerves and conflicting emotions, the familial bonds forged among squad members.
Other things have. The nature of war in the 21st century is something Crane couldn't have anticipated. During the Civil War, Cooper suggests, soldiers had a front line, a clear demarcation of combat zones. In Afghanistan, the front line is everywhere. "It's all around us, man," one of the soldiers laments. "We got nowhere to run to."
For newly deployed Henry Fleming (played by the talented Jacob Aaron Cullum), the war starts with friendly fire. He throws his gear down in an empty rack, and the more seasoned men commence hazing him like a high school freshman. It doesn't help when they discover he shares a name with the protagonist of the novel he carries: The Red Badge of Courage. The men flip through the book, quick to proclaim Crane's Fleming a coward, Fleming the man worse. The military-grade banter feels authentic, albeit sanitized for a teen audience. (Fleming is profaned as an FNG: "frickin' new guy.")
Tough-talking sniper Wilson (Matt Leonard) leads the charge, but he alone seems to take Fleming's presence personally. The empty bunk, we learn, was recently occupied by his best friend, and the dead man's memory lingers. Leonard skillfully plumbs the complexities of Wilson, a man whose gravelly bravado proves brittle in the aftershocks of combat.
Red Badge Variations is an ensemble piece, and the other performances are similarly strong. Matthew Joseph energizes the cast as the swaggering JC, a country boy and turkey farmer, and Jake Walker lends his comic timing (and some excellent Motown singing) to Doc Bird, a tender medic and former school-bus driver. Francisco Javier Villegas rounds out the ensemble as Tat, a religious man with misgivings about combat. Tat feels less complex than the rest of the squad, but that seems like a script issue: Cooper doesn't give him much else to do but thumb through the Bible and piously refuse poker buy-ins.
The Middle East is often slanged as "the sandbox," a vernacular literalized in P. Joseph Barnett and Scott Hobart's inventive design. Their angular set includes a downstage play area filled with cork granules to suggest the unique texture of Afghan sand. The set dressing is functional and suffused with visual texture — draped camouflage netting softens hard angles, and a walkway fashioned from broken pallets opens up the stage to dynamic blocking.
Hatley keeps the script taut, choreographing smart physical business to set the high adrenaline of combat against the disorienting boredom of a long deployment. Joseph Concha's sound design does the heavy lifting in battle scenes, making us feel as surrounded and exposed as the soldiers. Concha's sounds shape a dream world in one moment and whiplash us back to the present in the next, our ears ringing.
With any war tale, we expect a little pathos at the end, and Hatley delivers it here with gut-wrenching efficiency. The final day of deployment is bittersweet, and Fleming hums an elegiac tune that hangs heavy in the air. But Cooper circles back, trying to hit that same note again with an increasingly heavy hand, cueing the soldiers to repeat the song and giving Fleming another monologue. Even at a breakneck 70 minutes, this is milking the material, and the finale feels a shade too maudlin for a script that otherwise rejects sentimentality.
Still, Red Badge Variations works as an authentic examination of combat. Crane's Henry Fleming foolishly believed that battles were nothing more than "crimson blotches on the pages of the past." Cooper's Fleming reminds you that the stains don't fade.