Sunday, October 14, 2012

'Black Watch' Deploys Impressive Regimentation, But Isn't Quite a 'Must-See' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Black Watch
Presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
at the Broadway Armory, Chicago
Thru October 21, 2012

I will never really know what war is like.

No matter how many times I’ve seen war discussed and depicted in every imaginable form of media—including some rather acute recent films such as The Hurt Locker, Lebanon, Restrepo, Body of War and Hell and Back Again—I’ll never be able to truly identify with the tension, terror, torment, tragedy, tedium and tactics a soldier encounters, likely on any given day.

Although I am sure that there have been previous plays about war—including both the battlefield and the repercussions—nothing readily comes to mind as being quite like Black Watch. If nothing else, it is the first theatrical production I’ve ever seen in an armory, or at least a building that used to be one.

Aptly, the show—a touring production by the National Theatre of Scotland presented for the second straight year by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre—has as its venue the Broadway Armory. For both theatrical nomenclature and topical relevancy, where better to put on a play about war?

Written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, the play—though it’s not quite a traditionally-structured one—revolves around a group of mostly young soldiers from Scotland who are in the legendary Black Watch regiment of the British Army.

Black Watch troops were deployed to Iraq in 2004, for a somewhat vague mission supporting U.S. operations, and the script explores what the Scottish soldiers face during and after combat, including the lack of a clearly defined enemy or any acute sense of purpose since their own country was never attacked or threatened.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan
Especially given the gravity of its subject matter, Black Watch is certainly a piece of entertainment of substantive quality, originality and importance. I valued seeing it—oddly, I never heard of it when it played Chicago in 2011—and wouldn’t dissuade anyone so inclined from doing likewise.

That said, and with respect to the scads of critical acclaim Black Watch has garnered since it debuted in 2006—the Tribune’s Chris Jones just gave this rendition 4 stars (out of 4), as he did last year—I didn’t quite love it. And other than to those who are particularly fascinated by the subject matter, I don’t think that I would emphatically recommend it.

To begin with, although it is a compelling work staged in a unique matter, it isn’t a perfectly executed piece of theater. Less than a day after seeing Black Watch—which I watched rather intently—I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the characters or how each of the soldiers stood out from one another. And though I got (or so I think) that during post-war scenes that take place in a pub, a journalist/filmmaker/playwright(?) was interviewing the surviving soldiers, even this was a bit hazy.

While I respect that this is a Scottish play, properly employing Scottish actors—and all appeared to be rather adept—given their heavy brogue, there were numerous lines I couldn’t understand (and almost all were a struggle). And if you discount that about 25% of the dialogue consisted of some variation of the f-word and/or the c-word, that left an even smaller amount of the 2-hour show cogently comprehensible, let alone truly captivating.

No question, there were a number of moving, empathetic moments and towards the end things got fairly riveting, but though Black Watch explores uncommon territory for a stage work—and provides a fine overview of the titular regiment—as a glimpse into the realities of war, the show didn’t really provide insights with as much acuity (or even less) than Hurt Locker, Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or even M*A*S*H.

While the confusion, conflicting emotions and anguish of the soldiers was adequately portrayed, in sum and to a lesser extent individually, in large part Burke’s script illustrated that young men stuck in the desert for months on end spend a lot of time talking about sex.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan
So along with the severity of the overall themes, there were also a fair amount of laughs to be had and Black Watch was never less than watchable. It even featured moments of impressive choreography and singing from the cast (though not enough to be considered a musical).

Tickets for Black Watch seem to be readily available through HotTix and if you’re looking for heavy insights in a historic venue, the show is definitely worth your time and money.

But whereas other reviewers tend to imply this is a show not to be missed, given the plethora of other appealing options in Chicago theaters right now—Kinky Boots33 Variations, Sweet Bird of Youth, Sunday in the Park with George, Good People, Metamorphosis, Moment and more—I tend to think it can.

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