A bright, warm Sunday in San Francisco, Clint and I ducked into the A.C.T. theater looking forward to being transported to a different world as only the storytelling of stage can.
The play is based on the book, ‘War Music’ by British poet Christopher Logue. He claims it is an “account” of Homer’s Illiad drawn from five English translations. The result of which inspired Lillian Groag to consume the book one evening and embark on the ambitious task capturing the vision and emotions on stage as both director and playwright. As Logue states it so aptly, the timeless fascination with the story of Illiad is because it captures the complexity of war, “at once knowing how horrible it is, but also knowing that inside wars tremendous virtues exist–courage, bravery, self-sacrifice. And also feats of incredible daring.”
All great elements for the foundation of a great play.
The lights dimmed, the curtain magically fluttered downwards like a cascading waterfall and behind it a black stage, bodies lying down, a minimalist translucent lighted circle in the background. It was a minimalist backdrop which would be fine if it was a play about some commonplace. But this was in the midst of the Trojan war in a time far, far away.
The stage set did nothing to help me get to that place and I definitely needed to get there. To connect, to leap into the story which the the only way the rest of the play would be believable.
Unfortunately the play did not connect from the onset and for the rest of the play, all the elements struggled to play together but never did. No emotional heart strings were tugged. When the comic relief of Zeus and his clan of goddesses came on for the first time, I was grateful for the change of pace and a bit of humor. However, I also experienced whiplash from trying to grok such a sudden change of pace. Just when I got somewhat familiar with the interjections by the gods, the play sprinkles in scenes of modern warfare with guns blazing. The timing was off and what I got was another dose of whiplash.
The music was also a disappointment, it was lackluster and boring. For a play called ‘War Music’ I expected more.
The costumes were also a distraction. Most of them were unimaginative and the ones that were, only the top half were interesting. The cargo pants were distracting and I wanted to jump on stage and pull the flaps off from the back pockets. They ruined the lines of the beautiful bodices of the goddesses and Helen. I understand that perhaps there was a statement about tying together elements of modern day combat attire with that of stylized version of days gone by. However, perhaps less intellectualizing and more playing up to visual beauty was needed.
And so I keep coming back to that, for a play about the raw human passions of a war, this play lacked soul.
War Music is an example of too many creative forces working in too many different directions. You get the feeling that they were reaching for the pinnacle of dramatic achievement and instead deliver an art-house fiasco that tests the patience.
The best line of the show, unfortunately, came when the final curtain dropped, “Dare I say, thank God!” said the woman behind us. Based on the uniformly tepid audience reaction at the intermission and finale I’d suggest she was not alone.
I have so many problems with this production, it’s hard to know where to start. That’s too bad. At least, let me first acknowledge the hard work put into this production – over 3 years in fact.
One bright spot: the lighting. It was superb and added to the ambiance, shifting subtly from scene to scene; bathing the stage in orange with Troy in the distance one minute, and deftly projecting a summer Greek sky the next.
Otherwise, the acting is art-school over-wrought, as in “Look at me, I am acting. Projecting my voice. And acting!”. Fine if this was College theater.
I told Loni after the play, heading down 101 back to San Jose that it was a Haight-Ashbury version of a Greek tragedy… gone wrong. Indeed, mind altering substances should be a pre-requisite. There are disoriented, disjointed scenes at every turn. From inexplicable dust-blowing nymphs prancing across the stage to a gaudy military dance number with machine guns; screwing up the modernization of a classic story results in jaw dropping lunacy. I can’t say they didn’t try.
The actors do what they can, but there is no way they can overcome the dialog-heavy adaptation that lacks ebb and flow. The narration quickly becomes annoying as it shifts perspective from one character to the next, bottoming out near the end, unnecessarily emphasizing a scene where Achilles gets dressed: “His shoes, his shirt!” Oh.
While the lighting was excellent as previously mentioned, the music is not. Oddly, it seems to project from the rear left of the stage only. Surround sound, this is not.
War Music is a letdown. It’s too bad. The artistic effort, for example, that went into some of the show publications such as the classy 60-page booklet “Words on Plays” only served to increase expectation. So I say, “this marks the end of my comments”… end of my thoughts. No more typing needed. “Troy is mine!”
Production photos by Kevin Berne (www.kevinberne.com)