This War is Live
Presented by LateNight @ the Footlight
April 10-12, 9 p.m.
Footlight Players Theatre
20 Queen St.
This War is Live was chosen after a call-out to playwrights by LateNight @ the Footlight. The goal was to produce a brand-new play by a regional writer. The winner by a nose was Asheville's Jeff Douglas Messer, with his gritty, dialogue-heavy tale of journalists in the first year of the Iraq War.
Witty, cynical, and uncompromising, War has a brash left-wing slant, nudity, gay and straight sex scenes, gruesome photographic stills, and more F-bombs than real ones. Beyond those R-rated trimmings, the painstakingly executed play will appeal to anyone who concedes that President Bush might have made an error or two at the commencement of the Iraq War.
Grant Blake (played by Patrick Ryan) is an award-winning maverick journalist who has more luck with his stories than he does with women. The past couple of years have been a blur of troops and scoops for him; now he's heralding preparations for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In his search for the truth behind the military spin, he speaks his mind and doesn't always mind his Ps and Qs. That loses him a job as a news channel reporter, but fortunately he has friends in high places — including Major Brad, an old friend who now has a position of great responsibility in the war.
Blake is accompanied by Davey Aldridge, a cameraman who takes care of his buddy by watching his back and helping him to foster sources within the military. As the war shifts to Baghdad, he even does background checks on Blake's latest girlfriend, Kit Parker. She'll do anything to get what she wants, with a habit that's earned her the nickname "Cum-Shot Kitty" after broadcasting live with the remnants of a botched-up blowjob on her face.
Parker is only one of a horde of journalists who tag along with the troops in Iraq: Embedded TV teams are represented by "a pair of Fox fucks" who make Ron Burgundy look sensitive, and the chirpy Ashley Madison provides a female presence that's more fair and balanced (and more believable) than Parker. After Blake dares to broadcast a soldier's shocking true feelings about the war, he loses Major Brad's support — but gains that of Mr. X, an upper echelon Deep Throat type. He convinces Blake to continue seeking the truth, warning him to trust no one. Ultimately, it's Blake's naïve, trusting nature that gets him in hot water with U.S. media and threatens to destroy everything he's worked for.
Blake's smarter than Forrest Gump, but he resembles him in many ways — his endearing gangly poses, his credulousness, and his ability to appear in so many historic places at historic times: Sept. 11, the first stages of Baghdad's occupation, Abu Ghraib prison.
This allows the playwright to take the audience through the events of 2003 and '04. Messer gives us a refresher course of FUBARs and cover-ups: the attempt to retrieve Saddam's vanishing WMDs, the censoring of images of dead soldiers being shipped back home, the Abu Ghraib torture photos.
To squeeze a year of the Iraq War onto the Footlights stage is no mean feat, but director J.C. Conway and assistant director Christina Cummings also pack a complex plot, movie-style scene lengths, and over 20 characters into a palatable two-hour running time. Conway makes good casting choices, balancing young and veteran actors who reflect the age-range of the war's combatants and hangers-on. But the play is heavy with liberal and conspiratorial diatribe that challenges the actors and impairs the audience's sense of disbelief.
Patrick Ryan gets the audience to care about his character Grant Blake so that he can lead them through the harrowing events of the war. Ryan has a great gift for comedy that helps to break up speeches slamming the Bush administration and its handling of Iraq.
Bettina Beard, as Kitty Parker, is a strong actress, as she shows in her final scene with Ryan when their two characters collide. Her bold, sexual character comes on a little too strong in her early scenes, though, perhaps because Kit Parker's written with little room for subtlety.
James Pillow (playing Davey Aldridge), Mark Gorman (Major Brad), and David Barr (Pvt. Freeman) all give understated, believable performances. There are also some evocative cameos from Eddie Sturgeon (as Lt. Jones) and Mike Ferrer (Ahmed), who also play other, humorous roles to counterbalance their serious soul-searching ones. Nat Jones makes Mr. X a compelling character, even though he's only glimpsed facing away from the audience or in extreme close-up on a video screen.
The multimedia are impressive and, for the most part, enhance the story and make it more accessible for its intended audience. The video interviews shot by Witt Lacey are some of the most powerful in the production. There are no sets — just five canvases that are used as projection or shadow play screens. Conway and his crew create some great images with the white backgrounds, red lights, and shadows.
The Footlight Players have to be commended for a compelling play that could easily have alienated the board members of a less tolerant theater company.