November 1, 2008

The Martial Art of "Black Watch"

Second chances don’t come along that often. And so I wasted no time ordering tickets the minute I heard that Black Watch was returning to St. Ann’s Warehouse. Black Watch is the National Theatre of Scotland’s extraordinary production about soldiers from that country’s legendary military unit (the regiment dates back to 1725 and was named for the dark tartan kilts its soldiers wore) who were posted to Iraq. The show was such an instant sensation when it opened last year that the run sold out before I could see it.

People who did see it couldn’t stop talking about it. One of the guests at a brunch my husband K and I attended just this past weekend at my high school classmate Lesley’s house is friends with a St. Ann’s board member who, he says, was so blown away by the production that he offered to put up the money to bring it back after its North American tour so that more New Yorkers could see it.

I don’t know who that board member is but this New Yorker is grateful to him. Black Watch is a theater lover’s wet dream: a truly innovative production, superbly acted, marvelously staged and fully reproducible in no medium other than the theater. You don’t want to wait for the movie version of this one (click here to see a mini documentary about the making of it).

My theatergoing pal Bill had missed the original run too and so we met up in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn where St. Ann’s is located. After a thorough search of our Zagat’s guides, we decided to have dinner before the show at a restaurant called Five Front. It’s a cozy place, the food was surprisingly good and it’s conveniently located around the corner from the theater.

By the time we arrived at St. Ann’s, the large lobby space was packed and crackling with the anticipation of a crowd really excited about seeing a show. Just before 8 PM, the doors opened to the main theater, transformed into a kind of military parade ground with seats on both sides, and it took a while for everyone to get in so the show didn’t start until around 8:15. But bagpipes played all through the waiting time and is there anything more stirring than that soulful sound?

Now I don’t want to oversell the show. I had so looked forward to seeing Black Watch for so long that there was no way it could have lived up to my expectations. And I did feel a little let down. I also had some trouble deciphering the actors’ thick Scottish burrs (although their many variations of the word fuck—more than in any rap record yet made—came through loud and clear). But the more I think about it, the more impressed I am by the sheer theatrical spectacle of the show.

Playwright Gregory Burke has fused together news reports about Scotland's service in Iraq, interviews with returning soldiers, and letters from those who didn’t make it home into an explosive psychodrama about duty, honor and the deadly follies of war. And director John Tiffany enlists an arsenal of stage techniques—smart choreography and video projections, folk music and story theater, military rituals and performance art—to turn it into a dynamically visceral experience. Salutes are also due to every one of the 10 cast members who don’t just act but actually live the ordeal that runs for one-hour and 50 uninterrupted minutes.

Bill was even more knocked out by Black Watch than I was. If you still haven’t seen it, well here’s that rarest of rare things: a third chance. The run, which was supposed to end on Nov. 30 has just been extended to Dec. 21.

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