Discrimination Sucks Out Loud

I've got a friend with two mums, one of whom used to be an officer in the U.S. military. One drunken night in 1980, she had a passionate fling with another woman in some Eastern European city and woke up the next morning with the lady's name tattooed on her shoulder. She realized quickly that her new piece of body art might have a detrimental effect on her future in the Armed Forces, so she grabbed some steel wool and scrubbed the thing off. Now, it's just an inky smear atop a mass of scar tissue.

Can you imagine? Never mind that rubbing a tattoo off your own body with steel wool requires balls of marble and the heart of a grizzly bear — there's got to be an element of pure paranoia involved too. This is no ordinary panic. We're talking about a white-hot fear frenzy, the kind that can come about only in a genuinely weird atmosphere, where all ordinary rules of decency and privacy have been suspended and where you know for sure that there's nobody on your side.

A play about the witch-hunt for gays in the U.S. military should evoke some of this. The creeping malice of Big Brother should scare the hell out of you, and the desperate worrying of the protagonists should be brutal to see. You should be made to understand the forces that could move a woman to take a chunk out of her arm with steel wool.

With that set of standards firmly in mind, let our talk turn to David Greer's Burning Blue and the treatment it's getting from the Rising Action Theatre Company.

Anticipating technical difficulties, director David Goldyn politely requested that I abstain from seeing the opening-night performance. I wish I could have complied, but a boy's got his deadlines. Anyway, working out a performance's kinks is the whole point of rehearsal. I figured, hell, the man's got director's jitters — it's certainly not uncommon, and it's a long way from inexcusable. Opening nights always have their problems. Decent people all over the world understand this and try their best to be forgiving.

But that would be impossible in this case. Forgetting for a moment the 10 billion errors that could be charitably chalked up to virgin-performance chaos, this was a bawling abortion of a show, a failure so epic in proportion that it attained a kind of terrifying grandeur — like Roseanne Barr singing the National Anthem. Naked.

The "technical difficulties" that Goldyn feared proved insurmountable: Despite the fact that Cinema Paradiso can house an audience of only 209, the actors wore microphones that howled and rumbled with feedback every time they moved or spoke. Needless to say, this made most of the first act's dialogue completely unintelligible. When Goldyn announced after intermission that the microphones would be abandoned for act II, the audience was visibly relieved. Unfortunately, most of the actors then failed to adjust their voices to compensate for the lack of amplification.

Of course, they had bigger problems to worry about — mostly a lack of even rudimentary dramatic ability — but we'll get to that in a minute. There are still more technical errors to flog. I am not sure what system lighting designer David Hernandez was using to control the lights, but hopefully he'll abandon it soon. For reasons that I still cannot fathom, the man kept lightening and darkening various parts of the stage without any provocation whatsoever. Actors in the middle of dialogue were repeatedly plunged into darkness. Why? Who knows? I can only assume that Hernandez was reading along with a copy of the script in the projectionist's booth and couldn't hear the actors well enough to pick up his cues.

Project, you daft bastards!

And the set. Not only is it cheap — cheap is acceptable, cheap is workable, some great art's been created on shoe-string budgets — but it's tacky, ugly, and unimaginative. I'm pretty sure the cast just ripped a couple of office chairs out of one of the rooms in Cinema Paradiso to decorate the "State Room of the USS Harry Truman. " And that's not the worst of it: The worst is the dumb insistence on projecting image after image onto the movie screen at the front of the theater. When the actors are supposed to be in airplanes, we see clouds; when they're on a ship, we see water and sunsets. This would be innocuous if the entire play didn't take place in front of that very same movie screen. Yes, not only are these images projected onto the screen, they're projected onto the set pieces and the actors themselves. This isn't some intentional avant-garde thing, like the V.U. at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable: This is flagrant incompetence.

There is nothing about this production that doesn't suck out loud, so it's hard to know what's worth mentioning. Is it the costumes? None of them fit, and actress Gabriela Barbagalo is repeatedly done up in negligee-type outfits so lurid, so nerve-grindingly gruesome, that they made me want to accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior and eschew everything sexy forever.

Great actors couldn't have redeemed this mess, and the actors of Burning Blue are very far from great. Only Monica Griffin, Charles Bonamy, and Ben Feathers are anything approaching passable. Kevin Johnson delivers all of his lines in a froggish monotone; John Hernandez plays the rough-and-tumble "Ironman Matt Blackwood" like a flamboyant 12-year-old with ADD; Gabriela Barbagalo seems medicated.

Ah, well. It's a lousy play anyway. The ads says it won two Olivier Awards, and so it did — for lighting and set design ten years ago. If you care, the script traces the story of four Navy fighter pilots, two of whom fall in love. One dies; a witch-hunt begins, and there you go. The Big Brother characters don't seem especially intimidating, and the play's philosophy is woefully undercooked, articulated as it is with such mind-expanding lines as, "I thought witch-hunts were a thing of the past!" and "All these years, I've been living a lie!"

Boo-hiss. But alas, there is a silver-lining: There's always the possibility that the military will decide to open its arms to gays and lesbians just to make future stagings of Burning Blue as irrelevant as this one is already doomed to be.

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Brandon K. Thorp