THEATER REVIEW Vietnam: In Your Face
Roundabout Theatre Puts On Stunning Performance of Rabe Classic
Directed by Scott Ellis
Fall & Winter Season
Laura Pels Theatre
Last season’s production of David Rabe’s classic 1970s play, Streamers, gives new meaning to the power of theatre. Executed by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre in New York City, the performance included a cast of seasoned actors who brought an eerie realism to the tale of young soldiers awaiting deployment to Vietnam.
The story, dated as it may be, addresses issues that remain relevant to today’s discussion of social equality. The play opens with two young recruits arguing over one’s attempted suicide. Immediately tensions in the army are brought to the forefront. Martin, the young man who delivered an almost fatal cut to his own wrists, is being talked out of leaving the army by Billy, a confident and conservative Midwestern.
Martin’s exit from the barracks allows Roger and Richie, two more young recruits, to enter. Roger, Richie, Billy, and their interactions within the barracks make up the entirety of the play. Roger is a black man, seemingly prim and proper, making sure that order is maintained within the small community; Richie; a flaunting, flamboyant character; is publicly toying with his own ambiguous sexuality by poking fun at himself and the other men around him.
Rabe builds up a feeling of natural human anxiety right away, within the first scene; Billy is still uneasy about living with a homosexual man and the fact that he could be on the front lines any minute.
The play is set in the 1960s. These characters represent various social ideologies during the period, and the characters’ actions represent clashing social movements. Weaving in and out of their discussions are Sergeant Rooney and Sergeant Cokes. The latter, having just returned from a mission in Vietnam, takes to drink in a jarringly frightening display of utter drunkenness, carelessness, and chauvinistic pride. While the war is an overarching structural element to the play, the character’s personalities drive the message of the play. Any anti-war sentiment is an afterthought — instead, the audience focuses on what motivated these three vastly different men to join the war and how all struggle to find their simultaneous identities of man and fighter.
The Roundabout actors made me realize that theatre is not dead. In fact, it can be one of the most powerful art forms. The portrayal of these unique characters was believable and realistic, giving credibility to the story and the course of events. The play reaches a climax when Carlyle, a reactionary black man recently transferred to the base, breaks up the social order of the barracks. His outrageous attitude at times tempts Roger, challenges Billy, and flirts with Richie’s teetering homosexuality. Ato Essandoh, who played Carlyle, gave the best performance, causing the audience members to almost cringe in their seats as we watched him sway from one ideology to another, all the while fearing his military superiors.
Theatre evokes an immediacy that most other art forms cannot. The actors at Laura Pels Theatre revived an old Rabe classic with social commentary that is relevant today, even with the Vietnam War stashed away in the history books. It is neither the war nor even the time period (though one could argue that such racial and sexual tensions are mitigated in this decade) that makes this piece relevant. The conflicts within this play will exist as long as the human race lives. Using the war, Rabe cleverly comments that whenever we are driven to battle (figuratively, even), we must choose whether to survive or die.