That's Incredible

A production of the soldier's story Streamers looks for the nobler side of Vietnam

This past Thursday and Friday found me at the Bryant-Lake Bowl for three separate productions. This was enough to illuminate fully the limitations of the venue--mainly, that the hard wooden seats would flatten the ass of even someone as amply shaped as a Sir Mix-A-Lot model, and that the sounds of pins falling and bowlers cheering can be woefully distracting. But then, so much time spent bivouacked at the theater also showed its compensating qualities. A few glasses of wine go a long way toward quieting the throbbing backbone, and BLB's sheer, weird variety of onstage programming more than makes up for the endless clamor of bowling balls finding their strike pocket.

I mostly went for Streamers, the Casting Couch company's production of David Rabe's 1976 play about four privates stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia as the Vietnam conflict begins to escalate. If there is one thing that can safely be said of stories that deal with Vietnam, and of David Rabe scripts, and particularly of David Rabe scripts that deal with Vietnam, it is that they don't demonstrate much by the way of merriment or whimsy. As an example, Rabe is responsible for scripting Casualties of War, the most bewildering motion picture in what I like to consider Michael J. Fox's "dark period," when he was making films such as Bright Lights, Big City and providing voiceovers for Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam. It takes some sort of perverse imagination to make this pixie-like actor a witness to a My Lai-style massacre, the premise of Casualties, as though something had gone terribly wrong with Doc Brown's time traveling De Lorean, placing Marty McFly out of his depth and In Country.

Knowing that Rabe's play was likely to be a little gloomy, I also peeked in on comedian Ari Hoptman's Dial M for Comedy, and on Verbatim Verboten, a collection of roughly acted scenes taken from transcripts of celebrities bickering with each other. Both promised, and delivered, merriment and whimsy, although the specter of Vietnam intruded its ugly head into the latter, in the form of a monologue culled from the endless ranting tapes of Richard Nixon. The show's shaggy host, Michael Martin, saved Nixon's speech for himself. He rambled gleefully, revealing Nixon to have a surprising and coarse poetry to his impromptu fits of belligerent megalomania, screaming that when he asks for more bombers to be sent to Vietnam, by God, they had better be sent. "The mountain has labored mightily for two weeks," Nixon is quoted as babbling, "and at the end of that time it has produced a mouse--or, more truthfully, a rat!" I don't know if the remainder of the audience shared my reaction, but with my head full of cheap white wine, my ears filled with the sounds of falling pins, and my sacroiliac producing intermittent throbs of pain, I listened to Nixon's words and thought, Wow, I could never come up with something like that, off the cuff. But then, I could never have escalated the war in Vietnam, either.

I can't properly say why Casting Couch has decided to try its hand at Streamers, set in 1965, when the conflict in Vietnam was about to escalate to the tune of 100,000 new American soldiers. The play's director, Mikal J. Kraklio, explains in the program that he fell in love with the play way back in 1985, when he was a freshman in college and first read Rabe's script. He vowed then he would bring it to the stage, and 16 years later he has done so--an explanation, sure, but not explanation enough.

The reason I question the motivation behind this production of Streamers is that there is a puzzling sense of apology about the whole endeavor, such as when Kraklio further states in his program notes that "tonight you will see ten very INCREDIBLE men"--emphasis his. The play opens in darkness, not with Rabe's famous first words "I don't know what to tell you," but instead with a little introductory paragraph, presented anonymously by one of the actors onstage, explaining the heroism of the men who went off to war.

Well, Streamers is hardly about heroism, and neither is it a testament to men who went and fought and died. Instead, it takes a rather queasy look at three privates, one of them homosexual. Ryan Scott plays this character like a nervous swan, constantly and proudly trumpeting his flamboyance, eventually attracting the attention of a fellow named Carlyle, here played by Tyrone Lewis. Late at night and drunk beyond comprehension, Carlyle crawls into the cabin shared by the three soldiers, bullying each of the bunkmates with a patter that sounds like a Dolemite album played too quickly, a high-pitched whine of rapidly spoken jive. Carlyle has a knife strapped to his leg, and when he gets angry, he gets stabby--and it doesn't take much to make Carlyle angry.

The results alternate between grueling and oddly comical, played out on a stage decked with surplus military items and acted by men who actually seemed to be in their late teens and early twenties. One lies on the floor toward the end of the play, baby face pinched in pain, clutching his stomach, begging, "Please don't stab me any more. I don't think I could take it." There's none of Nixon's poetry here, but there's a similar strange question raised by the boy's plea: This should be terrifying. Why is it funny?

I imagine that, faced with this material, which expresses enormous, troubling ambivalence about race and homosexuality, director Kraklio panicked. Perhaps he thought there might one day be a Vietnam veteran in the audience who might stand up and cry out, "How dare you! I was in the battle of Chu Lai, I got spit on when I came back from the war, and this is what you show me?" And so, from the stage and in the programs, apologetic comments about how INCREDIBLE these men were. I prefer my art--however troubling--to be presented without cautiously worded caveats. You would think that 16 years after deciding that he must one day do this play, Kraklio would have been confident enough in the material to prevent it without apology. Not so.

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