“This is the best fun you will ever have,” an officer tells an enlisted man in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of “Black Watch,” staged at the Broadway Armory. The officer speaks with only a trace of irony as he tries to raise the morale of a brigade fed up with their role in Iraq by reminding them of the pleasures of being able to blast automatic weapons and fire expensive missiles. Promoting war like a free game of paintball gets at the heart of the play: war is one big, violent paradox.
Paradoxes abound in this smartly plotted multimedia production directed by John Tiffany. An infantry battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the historic Black Watch is a Scottish unit that began fighting on behalf of the UK in conflicts around the world in 1745. “Black Watch” includes a nifty history of the brigade through a series of costume changes (costume design by Jessica Brettle) imposed on a mostly horizontal soldier supported by his comrades in arms.
But things changed for the Black Watch after it was dispatched to Iraq in 2003 and reorganized. “Black Watch” is based on interviews playwright Gregory Burke conducted with returning soldiers and brings to life their struggle with the realities of modern warfare and the readjustment to civilian life. Paradox #2: the production reminds us that it was the United States that pulled the UK into the war in Iraq, with the characters in play asking why Americans need Scotsmen to replace U.S. Marines. More than 200,000 people around the world have seen “Black Watch,” but perhaps it resonates on an American stage more deeply than elsewhere. Chicago Shakespeare Theater deserves credit for bringing the performance here a second time as part of its World’s Stage Series.
Actually, the Broadway Armory is not exactly a stage. Now operated by the Chicago Park District as a recreational facility with five gymnasia, the massive 87-year-old structure is still home to the National Guard, its sole occupier for much of its history. The producers chose the building for its size, but its military history makes it especially apt. Theatergoers are seated on cushioned folding chairs arranged on risers on two sides of the gym for 110 minutes, with no intermission.
The setup pulls theatergoers into the action, as does the well-regulated sound (design by Gareth Fry). Sound note: it will be loud and there will be explosions! Lighting (by Colin Grenfell), which includes a red scope site zeroing in on the soldiers, video (by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer), and set design (by Laura Hopkins) — scaffolds that serve multiple functions, with props like a pool table that morphs into a vehicle — involve all the senses as the action alternates between a pub back home and the theater of war.
The 10 performers give their all to their (sometimes multiple) roles: Cameron Barnes, Ryan Fletcher, Scott Fletcher, Andrew Fraser, Robert Jack, Stephen McCole, Adam McNamara, Richard Rankin, Chris Starkie and Gavin Jon Wright. Not only are they powerful actors, but they also have wonderful singing voices, which brings us to Paradox #3: this play about the horrors of war engages us with beauty, especially music and dance.
Special credit goes to movement director Steven Hoggett for choreographing “Black Watch.” Nowhere is his choreography more effective than in the final scene, when soldiers assemble into the tight formations dictated by the military and then scatter in all directions, as if pulled into the chaos of war.
Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway, Chicago
Through Oct. 21, 2012
Tickets: $38–$52; 312-595-5600 or www.chicagoshakes.com