From l to r: Beau Barker, Josh Symonds, Brendan Andrews and Andrew McKenzie. Photo by Amy Dettling.
March 27 to April 6, 2013
The issue at play in Theatre BSMT’s production of Dennis Foon’s clunky and ridiculously contrived War is the genesis and outcome of violence in male teenagers. Told through the intersecting stories of four boys, the play attempts to take the shine off the fierce aggression sold to young men as glamorous, successful modes of being. Hockey obsessed Brad (Andrew McKenzie) has been groomed to be a goon on the ice since he was young and that mindset has more than spilled over into his attitude off the ice. His best friend Tommy (Brendan Andrews) dreams of flying a fighter jet and his time as a cadet has added on a lust for killing thanks to the rhetoric about “the enemy” he has been fed over the years. Shane (Josh Symonds) is a feared gang member with a newly acquired heart of gold who is tired of being the thug for rent. Finally Andy (Beau Barker) is the nerdy actor who desperately wants to learn the ways of the tough guys both for a part he’s after and to better protect himself from other boys. While Foon’s motivation for writing the play is interesting and the characters he chooses to tell his tale fine enough, the death and destruction War reaps on what passes for dialogue in this play is an unforgivable casualty.
Told with sparse language eliminating anything resembling an adverb or adjective in a combative Haiku kind of flow, the boys spend most of the play spitting declaratives at each other. In a scene where Andy, attempting to exact revenge from Brad for making him strip, demands the same from Brad, the dialogue becomes monosyllabic. “Problem?….Trust…..Test….Now?…Now…The Belt…Some Space…..Additional….Right here?….Affirmed”. Is this manner of speaking supposed to be a metaphor for the fact that these boys are operating in a type of war zone without time for drawn out exchange? Possibly. Does the resulting dialogue sound false, laughable and forced? Absolutely. Even when the script allows things to become more conversational in tone, the flow is littered with made up “gang” terms like Skrunk for slutty girls and Scube for loser boys. Rather than sound modern and menacing, the whole effect is risible, utterly undermining the lessons we are supposed to be learning as each boy’s violence turns on them in various destructive ways.
Not helping matters is a cast that seems as uncomfortable with the language as we are. McKenzie delivers his lines with cottonmouth-like diction, making it almost impossible to understand what he is shouting about and Andrews’ unmodulated aggression takes the impact out of his one truly violent scene. Symonds ’dialogue is spared much of the irritating cadence and as a result his character is somewhat compelling to watch even if he can’t provide the fearsome gangster charisma that is called for in this role. But Symonds does give us one of the only emotionally grabbing scenes in the play with a monologue about his brother’s violent death. The fact that Symonds could carry off the scene despite the distracting bleed-through sound of the show going on next door speaks to his professionalism if nothing else.
The one bright spot in this production is Barker, who is the only actor to rise above the monumental limits of the script to deliver a thoughtful and at times subtle performance. Whether speaking of his father’s death to the other boys or in his fourth-wall breaking monologue, Barker’s take on nerdy intelligence seems plausible and decidedly non-cliché.
But neither Barker’s decent performance nor Amy Dettling’s fairly smooth direction which has the boys moving around the chain-link fence set can save this play from itself. I would love to be able to write off War as a failed experiment and be fine with its dismissal. But what makes this failure so hard to forget is that Foon actually had the seeds of a good play here. The issues are fresh and in need of examination. Unfortunately with this treatment, the battle to win over the audience is lost before the play can even get going.
For everyone – SKIP IT