Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Warplay"


Warplay
JC Lee



JC Sclazo & Ed Berkeley
How inevitable is it that most boys will play war when they are kids, that plastic helmets and swords will be badges of honor to wear, and that lifelong bonds will often form with other guys as they tumble on the fields of backyard battle?  And how likely is it that those same boys will grow to be men and go to war where the boundary between game and reality, fun times and horrific events, life and death becomes porous and confusing? 

Human history says to-date the inevitability is still incredibly high that the lifetime march of boys and men toward war continues, resulting in the deaths of bosom comrades.  New Conservatory Theatre Center presents its third world premiere of the 2016-2017 season, staging JC Lee’s Warplay, a new work whose very title asks us to contemplate when, how, and maybe why a boy’s playtime games seem fated to become a man’s demise.  JC Lee also adds the complication of what happens when Fate dictates that a boyhood bond develops into a manhood relationship where love for another and duty to country conflict.

Based on the events of the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Illiad, JC Lee’s Warplay focuses on two key players, Achilles and Patroclus, renaming them simple ‘A’ and ‘P’ and making them contemporary in their modern speech and references.  In the background, far-off sounds of modern artillery occasionally punctuate their jockeying dialogues – verbal back-and-forths that often sound like two teenagers bragging and teasing their best bro.  As the war sounds get menacingly closer under the stars of night, a common returning theme between the two is when will ‘A’ head back to the battle and why can’t ‘P’ come along. 

Ed Berkeley & JD Sclazo
‘A’ tries to prepare ‘P’ for what he increasingly knows is Fate’s path for ‘P’ – no matter how much ‘A’ tries to intervene to halt that inevitability.  ‘A’ clearly acknowledges his heavenly deemed role as “hero” of his own life’s story and that “I’ve spent my whole life preparing for this [i.e., the war at hand].”  He is uncomfortable and even irritated that ‘P’ sees himself as just a small sapling in the forest next to ‘A’s’ bigger tree rising high into the sunlight.  But war, time, and Fate march on; and there is a sense of finality and fatality in each young warrior’s whispered “I love you” to the sleeping other – something they seem reluctant to say aloud in the bright of day.

With an eye both toward boyish playfulness and pranks as well as toward adult passions of war and love, Ben Randle directs this world premiere in a manner leaning toward the poetic.  Metaphors that abound in script are allowed to emerge naturally in the conversations and actions (as well as set design); and like a poem, some of the individual lines and symbols are not readily understood immediately but work collectively and in the end to paint a moving, lyrical picture. 

One prime example is a recurring image of rabbits.  Watching the play, the increasing predominance of cuddly rabbits – bunnies that more often than not meet an unhappy ending -- is curious and frankly puzzling with no answer emerging as to why a rabbit.  The metaphor becomes much clearer in a post-theatre, Google search when one discovers that the Achilles heel of a rabbit and of a human are structurally close enough that medical researchers use the former to study how to heal injuries human’s incur in their Achilles.  When one pieces together what we know through Homer of Achilles’ own fatal flaw and how his time on earth is tied to the vulnerability of his heel, then the startled fear that ‘A’ shows each time a rabbit suddenly appears with a message and the anger that erupts as he kills yet another rabbit become important underlying threads in the play.  (Unfortunately, there is no dramaturgy provided in the program to help the audience understand this rather obscure, but important reference.)

Ed Berkeley
Both actors in Warplay are exceptional in conveying the unique personalities of their epic-based predecessors.  As ‘A’(chilles), Ed Berkeley takes his status of gods-given hero rather matter-of-factly, often conversing at an almost ho-hum level in succinct fashion.  The river runs deep within him as can be seen in those big, intensely earnest eyes that belie the shoulder shrugs, slight smirks, and overall demeanor smacking on boredom that contrasts greatly to the over-active, high-strung ‘P.’  But when it comes to his feelings toward ‘P, he leaves no doubt that those are anything but casual – even if they are not expressed in words directly to the man he clearly loves.

JD Sclazo & Ed Berkeley
‘P’(atroclus) is a wound-up ball of nervous energy – skittish in an ADHD mode much of the time.  The arms and legs of JD Sclazo cross and uncross as often as seconds ticking on a clock, usually at the same time his body is swaying or he is walking in circles around the more stabilized, silently watching (with slight smile showing) ‘A.’  His lightening bug movements mirror the frustration he voices to ‘A’ that “I’m not special” and the realization that “I don’t register except as your diversion.”  His drive to be somebody only makes ‘A’ increasingly tense and worried as he tells ‘P,’ “Quit trying to prove yourself ... Just be who you are.”  The bold belief more likely retained from boyhood that nothing can really harm me is evident in Mr. Sclazo’s portrayal of ‘P.’ But the deeply knitted furrows in ‘A’s’ forehead indicate that he knows more than he wants to admit about P’s future, with Fate having already marked his and ‘P’s forward trail.

The interplay of boys playing and men warring is seen throughout the set so well designed by Devin Kasper.  The black sands of a war-torn landscape butt up against a bombed-out wall covered with military tarp and are dotted with the toys of a kid’s backyard.  A ladder leading up to a tented door could be a boy’s homemade tree house or a soldier’s improvised shelter. 

Ed Berkeley & JD Scalzo
The lighting design of Christian V. Mejia casts shadows and shapes that sometimes remind one of boys playing games and other times, of nature’s portending possible doom.  The sound design of Theodore J.H. Hulsker carries its own warnings in both the far-off explosions of war or in the choice of music that surrounds the small arena.  Miriam Lewis’s costumes and Adeline Smith’s properties never let us forget these are boys in men’s bodies, kids facing adult decisions and consequences.

JC Lee’s script is indeed poetic and powerful, even if certain references are a bit unclear (like all the rabbits).  Unfortunately, in my opinion, the play is too short for a main-staged production.  At barely seventy minutes, the play lasts less than the time many of us living in the ‘burbs of San Francisco Bay Area took to get to the City to see it, much less to go home.  I personally find such short offerings a bit frustrating, even when they are overall quite good. 

That said, the acting, directing, and creative team choices of NCTC’s Warplay are all note-worthy and admirable.  As a world premiere production, there is much to ponder and to admire.

Rating: 3.5 E

Warplay continues through July 2, 2017 on the Walker Stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

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