At a guess, neither playwright Damon DiMarco nor director Michael King meant for Shock & Awe: Soldiers’ Voices from Iraq to take stage as a laugh riot when, on Thursday night, it opened Northern Kentucky University’s biennial Year-End-Series (Y.E.S.) new play festival. But it did.
At a guess, DiMarco was aiming at sage and poignant wisdom about men and women shoved into harm’s way, their plight lightened here and there by a little — repeat, a little rough-hewn, rough-tongued gallows humor. The play’s thesis-y title (with built-in footnote) suggests that he meant for audiences to be shamed into some serious rumination about wasteful, painful misadventures in faraway deserts. Didn’t happen. Couldn’t happen. Not with a script this thin and a production this scattered.
On opening night, the audience took most of DiMarco’s characters for buffoons and howled at their frantic antics, rather than laughing with them as endangered heroes. They greeted the script’s relentless profanity — accurately reflective of barracks life though it is — with wave after wave of raucous, approving laughter — as in “Let’s all go out behind the garage and see how many times we can say ‘fuck’ in one sentence,” all the while giggling like 12-year-olds on the sneak.
Don’t, however, blame the audience. They went where they were led by a jumble of half-imagined characters and a tangle of half-explored narrative threads — all, the playwright claims, suggested by interviews he conducted with real Iraq war veterans. The audience found humor at the level of a comedy club in everything said because the script invests little genuine agony and even less irony in anything. They laughed at everything because King’s blundered production never exerted any authority, never took charge of the dramatic interaction between actors and audience, never led viewers to listen, think and worry. Shock & Awe? Try schlock & middling awful.
One or two of the play’s multiple plot lines play with some impact. Most successful, mostly because it has some ironic and metaphoric overtones, in one concerning a soldier who buys a classic car in Iraq, endures the endless difficulties of shipping it home. It arrives severely damaged, like many returning veterans. In a rapid-fire dialogue sequence, two members of an intelligence unit spar in sharp wordplay with rhythmic repetition of certain words. It might have worked had it been staged as characters talking to each other. Instead it was shaped as vaudeville patter between comedians, thus denying it any dramatic resonance.
The waste here is that the 14 student actors and actresses are the correct age to play most of the 27 characters. Ground warfare is a young man’s (and as of recently a young woman’s) game. Who better to get the play’s intent? Who better to feel the grip and grind of far-from-home loneliness? Who better to communicate that strange battlefield mixture of abject fear, exploding anger and bloodlust ravening after revenge?
Get it? Well, they do and they don’t. There’s no end of energy from all hands, but too little precision — likewise from all hands. All 14 players would profit from a remedial trip through Enunciation 101, especially those saddled with accents and more especially considering the acoustical challenges of NKU’s Corbett Theater.
Battlefield and post-battle plays with large numbers of characters and multiple, interwoven plot lines can and do succeed. All Quiet on the Western Front, What Price Glory and John Patrick’s infinitely sad, infinitely hopeful Hasty Heart come quickly to mind, to say nothing of Shakespeare’s Henry V.
It can be done. DiMarco just didn’t do it. And King didn’t help.
SHOCK & AWE, presented as part of Northern Kentucky University's Year End Series (Y.E.S.) Festival of New Plays, continues through April 25. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.