The western world’s troops may be exhausted from a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but playwrights are just getting started. Significant works like Black Watch, The Great Game: Afghanistan, and the revised Homebody/Kabul all explore the war zone, but they do so with little onstage replication of live combat. Most rely on a storytelling framework and flashbacks.
The central reason for this is simple: In an age of high-def video games and fastidiously detailed films like The Hurt Locker, it’s difficult to convincingly simulate combat in the theater. But if there was a troupe that could try and take a war zone literally, it’s Synetic, the Arlington-based company known for its highly combative updates of Shakespeare. Home of the Soldier, Synetic’s violent season finale, is loaded with action sequences. But in trying to depict a present-day conflict, the physical-theater troupe has finally met its match.
The nonlinear narrative follows the deployment of a young solider played by Vato Tsikurishvili, son of director and theater co-founder Paata Tsikurishvili, making his debut in a lead role. Not much subtlety is required, however: Vato’s character is a man of few words who’s enlisted for a very specific reason, one that’s not revealed until late in the play.
This is one of several structural challenges in Home of the Soldier, as written by Synetic company member Ben Cunis. Suspense it great, but the delayed revelation comes at the expense of the characters’ motivations. (Read any plot-revealing marketing materials before the show, and you may be confused.) The tempo and setting are also troubled, with the action flipping back and forth between the company’s escapades and the encampment of “native” insurgents they’re fighting.
As they developed the play, Paata Tsikurishvili and Cunis interviewed many armed services members. Before the performance I attended, the theater proudly introduced a soldier from the Tsikurishvilis’ native Georgia who served in Afghanistan with coalition forces. The commitment to authenticity pays off in scenes that portray the daily life of the troops, particularly a kinetic and funny opening sequence set during basic training. (Who wants to see Synetic actors do push-ups?) Joseph Carlson steals every scene he’s in as the redneck drill sergeant struggling to supervise randy young troops in a war zone.
Those scenes feel so hyper-realistic that it’s tough to take the play seriously whenever the insurgents are onstage. They’re wearing black leggings, metallic mesh capes, and smears of green eye shadow. They speak in stilted Old English. Who are these people? The elves of Rivendell?
Perhaps Paata Tsikurishvili and Cunis are attempting to be culturally sensitive, but their stylized approximation of a martyr’s funeral, accompanied by Middle Eastern techno music, goes too far. As the actors writhe like Martha Graham performing “Lamentation,” pools of blood morph on a large screen behind the stage. It’s creepy. Uncomfortably creepy.
Much of the projection work is extremely high-tech. Flashes of neon green shift the play from scene to scene, an effect that’s very NCIS, and one that obviously took quite a bit of work. The overall aesthetic seems to mimick games like Call of Duty (or even World of Warcraft), which might make teenage boys Home of the Soldier’s target audience. The climax is exciting, suspenseful, and sweetly moving. It’s only theater fuddy-duddies—you know, folks who value things like internal logic—who’ll leave frustrated.
Then again, war is hell, and hell hath no internal logic.