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Friday, October 31, 2008

Review- Harm's Way & Man.Gov (Circus Theatricals)

The Fab Marquee review by Dianna Martin.

Circus Theatricals, an award-winning Los Angeles-based theatre company, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with the New York City premiere of two dramatic pieces in repertory, Harm's Way and Man.Gov, so that we might get a taste of what has caught the eye of theatre-goers in California. Indeed, what better time than now to share two works that, written by Shem Bitterman and directed by Steve Zuckerman, bring the audience into the heart of the 2003-2004 time line and into the homes of characters affected by the past 8 years and its White House administration's decisions.


One thing that Circus Theatricals seems to be attempting to do is not simply preach on a pulpit about perceived failures and grievances of the U.S. government and the mishandling of the war; they also try to show the way that people's lives can get caught up in the very thick of it, and how even those whose loyalties are tied to preserving "the American way" can suddenly find themselves adrift in their own lives, among their own families, having lost their way to even finding themselves.

Ben Bowen & Jack Stehlin in
Harm's Way

Harm's Way is one such piece. Let me start by saying that this was one of the most enjoyable productions I have seen on stage in the last two years, which is not surprising since it recently won the 2008 Pen USA Literary Award for Drama. Starring the company's Artistic Director, Jack Stehlin (Weeds) as Major Jonathan Fredericks, an Army prosecutor investigating alleged war crimes against an Iraqi family by U.S. troops overseas, the play is deeply moving as we watch a man whose own personal life is in turmoil as he questions the motives of his superiors who are willing to brush rapes and murders under the rug. His daughter, Bianca (tenderly and brilliantly played by Sarah Foret) is a childlike young woman who tries to care for the young men who go in and out of her father's office through sex, as though giving of herself will absolve the men of their sins and sometimes their anguish, as we see in the also simpleminded Private Nick Granville (Ben Bowen in a heartbreaking performance); their characters are somehow tragically made for one another as they struggle to run from their fates - which inevitably catch up with them.

Fredricks' struggle with orders from his commanding officer Colonel Davis (in a funny, yet sometimes over-the-top performance by Eric Pierpoint) coincide with the discovery that Bianca has run away with the now awol Private Granville, and that the young man may have been set up by his peers due to his lack of intelligence and basic fears of being surrounded by enemy forces. As he tries to hunt down his daughter and her would-be Romeo, he is approached by reporter Constance Durrell (Wendy Makkena), who convinces him that her sources would find the young duo much faster - and therefore possibly bring his daughter to safety - but for a price: the story behind why Private Granville is being investigated in the first place.

Jack Stehlin & Wendy Makkena in
Harm's Way

As they search, a brief relationship of sorts begins between the two, for Constance Durrell has a soft heart under the tough exterior. Some of the scenes between Stehlin and Makkena are beautiful; both are actors who know their craft well. However, I did have a problem with their initial scene; in Makkena's attempt at playing the fast-talking reporter who is trying to get the scoop, I literally could not understand half of what she was saying because she was talking so fast - and I am not hard of hearing (and I was in the third row of a tiny theatre). In doing so, I felt that Stehlin's character, though desperate to find his daughter, might have actually asked her to repeat herself - and a scene that was to set the tone for their relationship, for what it was, seemed to lose some of it's validity for me. I was also confused by a later scene in which they are on the track of the young pair and get into an argument...over an off-hand, yet legitimate comment made by Stehlin's character. I felt that at this point, it was an under-developed scene by the writer, made more vague by characters that seemed lost on the stage because they weren't connecting with each other - and not because of the situation. I look at moments like these because so much of the play was so good.

Josh Allen, Sarah Foret & Ben Bowen in
Harm's Way

Josh Allen gives a fine performance as a scary meth-smoking Sergeant with whom the desperate Bowen and Foret try to find shelter. As she finds out the truth behind what went on in Iraq, much to the shame of a devastated Bowen, and the build-up of their journey comes crashing down, I doubt if anyone could have left that theatre without the haunting memory of Stehlin and lingering thoughts about what the Iraq war has cost people - in the military and civillian; American and Iraqi; at home and in the public eye.


I happened to see Harm's Way first, although it was originally produced a year after its companion piece, Man.Gov. My expectations were very high from having seen the first show; and although I did enjoy Man.Gov, and would recommend that people see it, I felt that there were several major problems with the show - one of which is that it was very much a "preachy" play - and at times felt that it could have been a one-man show instead of a whole short play. Whereas Harm's Way focused on the characters, their relationships and how they came together under the umbrella of the machine that is the "Army vs. Civillian" in today's political climate, Man.Gov focused less on the characters and more on the message it was trying to send out...which made it very much just another political play, unfortunately, among many that are out there.

Christopher Curry and Robert Cicchini in

The time is set leading up to right before the Iraq war. David (Christopher Curry) is a high-ranking weapons inspector who begins to question the reasons why he and his working partner Mitch (enjoyably played by Jordan Lund) are supposed to gloss over the facts of what they really do find during searches for Weapons of Mass Destruction and why they need to "sex up" the evidence to support the invasion, although he doesn't want to admit it because he is very much "with the program" and a loyal government official. His daughter Laura (Britt Napier) is a fan of writer Graylin James (Robert Cicchini), whose writings question the Bush administration and the existence of WMD's; she complains that her father won't meet with him to at least give an interview. She seems to have no end to her anger toward her father; her mostly one-note portrayal of this complex and yet in some ways poorly-developed character was a shame, for she alienated everyone in the play - including the audience. However, her father, wishing to please her, ends up meeting with the charismatic Graylin James, who ends up getting an interview that inevitably costs David everything - even though he was quoted as an "anonymous source...who is a high-ranking weapons inspector."

His second wife, Jean (Libby West) is relatively young; they have a five-year-old son (the first wife, the mother of Laura, died when Laura was nine). She doesn't realize at first that he is the source that all the TV news and papers are talking about; she just thinks that her husband is being questioned wrongly. From the moment she was introduced, I never really felt any chemistry between her and Curry. His character seemed to be so distracted - consistently - from his family (except for trying to please Laura and one scene when he tries to take his wife out to dinner, which was tender) I rarely bought their love for each other. When Henry (Thomas Kopache), a creepy government man who is trying to get poor David to maintain his silence for the sake of his family, arrives on the scene, I did enjoy West's outburst - and felt that moment was truly grounded and connected.

One thing that I still do not understand is the relationship between Laura and Henry, the government henchman. It made no sense, as it was written and panned out. It is evident that Laura is a young woman with serious mental issues, but her relationship with him...and his even getting involved with her at all - it was bizarre, which lent an air of "where is this going...because it's got to have an interesting punchline" to it, but alas, there was no real rhyme nor reason. That being said, I found him perfect as the disturbing individual he was supposed to be.

My favorite part of this play was Cicchini's monologues. They were not only beautifully written, as he's talking to an unseen television reporter to describe his recent story and eventually, if what he's doing he's proud of; they were brilliantly acted. Those kinds of monologues are hard to do, to keep the audience really believing that there is someone on the other end, for many actors do not pull it off. Add in that it was a political diatribe that was both engrossing and entertaining, and you have the reason why I feel the play came to life during those moments. I feel a lot could have been cut to make this short play and even shorter one, focused mostly on the interviews in the studio.

In regards to both shows as a whole, kudos to the set designer (and costume designer), Kitty Rose. Her choices of creating entirely different settings, both indoor and outdoor, with a minimal piece of furniture for each area, and using much of the same set for both plays was fantastic. The lighting was very complimentary to the set (Derrick McDaniel) and the original music and sound was fantastic. (All set, lights, music design and stage managing was by the same group for both shows)

Although I was disappointed by Man.Gov, I feel that the message it had to get across is important; however sometimes sacrificing other aspects of the play to get to that message is a sign that you need to either cut them out, or develop the rest of the play. That said, it is still completely worth seeing, and my disappointment was simply made more so because of the incredible power and beauty of Harm's Way.

Circus Theatricals has done an incredible job with this repertory season, and I thank them for bringing their plays to New York. I wish they didn't have to go back to California.

Circus Theatricals presents
Shem Bitterman's
Harm's Way & Man.Gov
October 10th-November 9th, 2008 (check website for schedule)
The 45th St Theater

Tickets are $18.00; You can purchase tickets to Harm's Way and Man.Gov by visiting or calling 212-352-3101.

For a detailed schedule and more information visit

The 45th St Theater | 354 W 45th Street | Manhattan.

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