Voices of War
War may be hell, but we humans love to hear stories about it. Think back on the history of theater, of movies, of literature. The war story is central to them all. The Iliad still stirs the imagination. So do Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Then there are the movies -- The Longest Day, The Deer Hunter, Saving Private Ryan... the list is endless.
Despite this, the real story of war -- the boredom, the daily horror, the sense of unreality -- rarely gets told. Few writers are soldiers, and most combat vets don't write down what they have experienced. Some do, though, which is the case with the Juggerknot Theatre Company's production of Tracers, an intense ground-level look at the Vietnam War from the point of view of the American enlisted men who fought it. Developed by the Vietnam Veterans Theatre Company in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, the show is more a performance piece than a conventional play, a series of dramatic vignettes and monologues that dispense with a linear narrative sequence.
In one early scene, a drill sergeant terrorizes his raw recruits, then reveals to the audience that his job is to find the one real warrior and the ten decent fighters out of a hundred; the rest, lacking proper training, equipment, or tactical support, are just targets. The range of combat experience -- the terror of jungle patrol, the horrific satisfaction of killing the enemy, the seduction of drugs, the sudden spasms of violent anger, the loneliness of boys/men cut off from their normal lives -- is vividly portrayed in scenes that are by turns poignant, profane, and humorous.
The ensemble cast of young local actors delivers strong detailed work. Kristoff Skalet is rock-solid as Habu, a black militant whose job as squad leader is to keep his platoon of white boys alive. Steve Russo and Andrio Chavarro are effective as short-fused grunts ready to blow. David Perez-Ribada, notable as the book-loving lector in Anna in the Tropics, does well as another bibliophile who uses reading as a way to avoid relating to guys he knows may be dead the next day. And Gregg Weiner is thoroughly plausible as the veteran drill instructor.
In his professional South Florida directing debut, Andy Quiroga does a fine job of staging the play's many action and dream sequences. Quiroga also gets credit for the realism of this show, despite the fact that few of these actors were likely even born when the play's events took place. This authenticity is helped enormously by Joe Pisciotta's brilliant sound design, a multilayered aural opera of combat sounds, late-'60s rock 'n' roll, and disconcerting dream music that creates a Vietnam of the imagination.
The production suffers from some minor drawbacks, as when the script blunders into occasional attempts at self-conscious "art." I could have done without a few dancelike moments or one pretentious monologue that describes the troops as "trapped spirits on the periphery of obscurity." The simple physical production thankfully avoids superfluous embellishment, using camouflage netting and some crates as a simple set. The ragtag uniforms and the realistic prop M-16s help the mood, though the weapons look too new, lacking the carved notches, decals, and other personal touches that the real things often had during 'Nam.
There's a lot of talk lately of the parallels between Vietnam and the current situation in Iraq, which is, perhaps, why Juggerknot chose to produce Tracers. Now that the thumping war rhetoric of recent months has abated, this may well be a good time to take a cool hard look at wars and the price paid by those who fight them. While Tracers, which premiered in 1980, is certainly in that long tradition of war stories, it is a rarity in the genre because it gives voice to those who actually fought the war. (So does another memoir Vietnam play, A Piece of My Heart, which tells the stories of American female soldiers in Vietnam.) These characters were drawn from real experiences, barely fictionalized for the stage. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's certainly more heartbreaking: These soldiers knew they were pawns in a questionable war with no exit strategy. In this, the parallels with today are sobering, and the voices of these regular G.I. Joes seem distressingly prophetic.
But what's most troubling about this production is Juggerknot's failure to credit the ensemble of Vietnam veterans who created the script, a painful irony in a show that claims to speak for the forgotten fighting man. All credit is laid to John DiFusco, the Viet vet who cowrote and directed the original production; he gets a "conceived by" program credit and a bio as Tracers' sole playwright. But what of Vincent Caristi, Rick Gallavan, Richard Chaves, Eric E. Emerson, Sheldon Lettich, Merlin Marston, and Harry Stephens, combat veterans all who, in collaboration with DiFusco, spun out their searing personal memories into enduring theater? Like their characters, they are invisible; yet without them, there would be no show.
Take Marston, whose story of trying to match severed arms and legs with their proper bodies makes for one of the most vivid and horrific scenes in Tracers. Like the character he created, Little John, Marston was a former pre-med student from Georgia who worried about the potentially lethal effects of Agent Orange, the defoliant the U.S. government dumped all over South Vietnam. After helping create Tracers, Marston performed as Little John in the original Los Angeles production and in the Australia tour before dying of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a disease suspected to be caused by overexposure to Agent Orange. Tracers is a show that gives war a human face, a worthy theatrical achievement. Surely Marston and his unsung writer/comrades deserve to be acknowledged for their work.
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