Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: War, As Told Through Poetry

By Michael Block

As the program notes, Death Comes for the War Poets grapples with the full horror of trench warfare through the eyes, and words, of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. In addition to the Spirit of Death. The piece is also described as a dramatic verse tapestry. These are key bits of information to keep in mind before the lights go down. Playing the Sheen Center, Death Comes for the War Poets by Joseph Pearce can best be described as impenetrable in content but a wonder to the eye.
Performed as a series of poetic movements, Death Comes for the War Poets is very much a language play. Through the perspective of Sassoon and Owen, Joseph Pearce weaves their words, alongside some of the finest Christian voices of the modern era, to depict the reality of war. Death Comes for the War Poets is not an autobiographical piece about Siegfried Sassoon. It’s not a retrospective of his work. Essentially, it’s just an exploration of poetry as performed by a trio of proficient actors curated by the author. There is certainly a strong perspective in the narrative that Pearce weaves, and yet it still feels pigeonholed. Curiously, this is not a play where the sole focus is the words of the two main poets. Pearce intersects their text with some from other related poets. Cameos if you will. Dramaturgically, you have to figure out why as it’s not supported in the text. And if it is? Then it’s deep down there. That being said, if you dissect the piece and look at each movement on their own, you may find some richness in the words.
photo by Michael Abrams
If poetry isn’t your forte, this was an excellent showcase for the trio on stage. Capturing the essence of the poets, each actor brought a variety of emotion and physicality upon the stage. Capturing the hardships of war through the eyes of Sassoon, Nicholas Carriere was a beacon of hope against the backdrop of terror. Carriere gave Sassoon a confidence, which allowed Sassoon to accept his fate each time he was visited by Death. As his comrade Wilfred Owen, Michael Raver’s dynamic performance left you begging for more. Raver has a poise about him that is alluring. Both Carriere and Raver had a basis in which to craft their performance. Sarah Naughton did not. Personifying death can be tricky and yet Naughton, for lack of a better term, slayed. Naughton’s Death was captivating and engaging. She had a mystery about her that, knowing what comes with her presence, was even more enticing. There was a delicacy to her performance as she danced her through the piece. Sassoon and Owen truly did a remarkable job dancing with death.
Throw this script in a small theater with a budget of nothing and it’ll likely suffer. Thankfully, that was not this production. To say the staging was ambitious is an understatement. Director Peter Dobbins played the spectacle card to ensure elation. Along with his design team, Dobbins took some giant risks, not all of which paid off. First and foremost, Dobbins made this an intimate production despite the grandeur. Dobbins placed the audience on two sides of the giant planed cross that stood high above the ground. Flanked by two stone structures, one of which served as the projection surface, Connor W. Munion’s scenic design was certainly brazen. Munion gave Dobbins the tools he would need to stage it but with the inclusion of wondrous projection design by Joey Moro, you often didn’t know what the focus was supposed to be on. The precision to which Moro used Munion’s slate was extraordinary. It elevated the look of the show. But no matter where you were seated, if Dobbins had his players on the opposite side of the stage from the projection, the projections always won out. They just happened to be a tad more interesting to the eye. Yes, there were certainly moments where Dobbins guided the stage picture to appreciate both, but they were few and far between. Costume designer Jennipher Pacheco dressed the gentlemen in period wear but brought her creativity out for Death. Exploring a Black Swan like attire for most of the evening, it paired well with the balletic motion of the character. Kenneth Goodwin’s sound design fit the explosive nature of a battlefield. It almost played like an underscore at times.
Not every piece for the stage has to be a well-structured, plot-driven production. This show certainly isn’t. Had an exceptional cast and a stunningly beautiful design not aided Death Comes for the War Poets, it may have been hard to sit through.