'A Good Soldier,' now running at the Odyssey Theater, takes the classical tragedy of Antigone and the modern tragedy of the Iraq war and offers a compelling, nuanced examination of what it means to be a good soldier, citizen, and human being. The pleasures of the classical Sophocles clash of the State and the Spirit continue to generate both pity and fear today. I liked the play and the performances well enough that I wish I could say that it brought me to the catharsis of a classic. Even so, I would say for anyone who likes a play of ideas rooted in the tradition of using individuals to reflect and comment on social realities, this is one worth seeing.
It is truly a play, unlike many stage offerings in town. It uses language as its primary tool. The characters face each other in the suggestive semi-void of a small black-box theater, and bring us halfway across the world with no wizardry but the words they speak. The set is simple and richly suggestive. The sound design textured and evocative. Nothing is real but the people on stage, as they call forth the question of what is the right thing to do in a complex life-or-death situation and struggle to solve it for themselves as we, the audience, watch and vicariously ask the question with them.
The play was written by Nicholas Kazan ('Reversal of Fortune,' 'Frances,' 'At Close Range') after the 2004 election when he found himself filled with 'despair and rage, and the only way I could dispel the first and marshall the second was to write.' What he wrote was this play about individual and collective conscience. At the level of dialectic, the play shines. On the level of emotion, the play left me disappointed. This may be in the writing, but I cannot be sure because of mis-steps in casting and direction that kept taking me out of the story.
The performances of the individual actors as individuals are a pleasure to watch. Clancy Brown as General Creedon alone is worth the evening. People talk about acting as a craft, and you could see it as such watching Brown and recognizing a master craftsman at work. When he walked on stage, he brought more than his individual character. It was like he put the whole play on with his costume. He fed his energy not just into his own part, but gave it to everyone who was on stage with him and to the imaginary world he was moving through and to the audience he was taking along for the ride. Without this mastery, an audience is often unwilling to travel the uncomfortable terrain of tragedy.
His costar, Kaitlin Doubleday as Annie, while very good in her role, struck me as being only about her role. Her emotions were fluid, her comic timing impeccable, but her connection to others was tenuous at best and rarely of her making. She touched her fiance, Hammond (Michael Anderson Brown) with as much feeling as she touched pieces of the set. (He, on the other hand, at least looked at her like he loved her, though he seemed afraid to actually touch her.) It could have been a choice to isolate the 'Antigone' character, but Hammond was such a great guy that we hated her for not loving him.
Part of her problem was one of inexperience. In a play that will most certainly end in tragedy, the actors must be of a caliber to convince the audience that if it allows itself to be taken on a dark emotional journey, the actors will see them all the way there and back. I held my heart out of the play in part because this young woman's own emotional detachment from the others and inexperience at carrying a difficult play left me unwilling to surrender my emotions to her care.
A larger part of the problem with Annie is that Doubleday was miscast. She is ethereal and arch, qualities that would make her a great romantic or comic lead but which were terribly wrong for this part. I never believed for one minute that this girl would have enlisted in the armed services in the first place.
The issue of casting brings me to the director, Scott Paulin, on whose shoulders I lay most of my problems with this play. Perhaps he is fine director for a different sort of play. It was as if a Kabuki director were asked to stage a Noh play. Where Kabuki is about striking poses and fighting dragons, Noh is about singing poetry and suffering one's fate. In 'A Good Soldier,' the audience has followed the complex emotional arguments only to be hit on the head with the final tableau - pin light on the General down center as the Colonel intones the ultimate question of blame. Not only is it blatant, but it is wrong. I disagreed with the message. If the play wants to point a finger, then the playwright needs to write a different play.
Or take the gestures of father to son where the General ruffled Hammond's hair - hair that a boy would have, but soldier Hammond has a serviceman's buzz cut. This gesture, which could be so telling in a Brechtian way, was painful to watch. The gesture was not so much wrong as undeveloped. It might have been drawn out into a dynamic reflection of the father/son relationship. Do the father's words chide his son to 'be a man' while his actions ask him to remain a child? Is there a kind of animal dominance or is it the only genuine tenderness left in the man? And if so, does it die, morph, or become mechanical? How does the son feel about it? Of course, that would depend on what the gesture meant, a thing the director did not handle. And so, every time it happened, I left the story. Where was the director?
Another example is Hammond. Michael Anderson Brown's performance from the head and shoulders was wonderful. Yet he was uncomfortable on stage. He didn't know what to do with his hands, so they usually ended up on his hips. Now, Clancy Brown also often stood with one or both hands on his hips in a dynamic stance intended to dominate. It would not have been a stretch for the director to suggest Hammond transform his actor discomfort into a desire to imitate his father by layering over a bad habit an affectation of character. This would be taking a talented young actor's weakness and turning into a strength. Or he could have given the actor other choices, other blocking, other props.
Then there was the overly dramatic blocking of Annie's final exit, which drew a snort from the person seated in front of me. Or the end of Scene 1, where an uncomplicated bunkmate of Annie's is blocked to sit pensively meditating down center in a off-the-mark 'Rodin's Thinker moment.' Why? So a later choice by the same character would be foreshadowed? There is a difference between foreshadowing and a billboard with a neon arrow blinking. If you're smart enough to like this play, you're smart enough to read between the lines.
Despite her being directed to do things her character wouldn't, Ali Hillis did a simply marvelous job as Josey, Annie's bunkmate. Although a very small role, she did what Clancy Brown did in a lead role; she carried the whole world of the play with her on stage. As someone who spent a few years of her misspent youth in a Department of Defense Agency that shall remain nameless and who knew a good number of young women who had enlisted in the Armed Forces, I believed her, her strength, her weaknesses, her betrayal and her rebellion, all of it down to her toes.
All this said, there is no experience like being in the presence of fine actors riding their craft down the the rapids of a good play. My complaints about the directing will probably wash away as the run progresses and the actors learn from their audiences what moves them. If you like plays, and particularly if you like the classics, this is a worthwhile evening of theater.
A Good Soldier
by Nicholas Kazan
Directed by Scott Paulin
Produced by Laura Shapiro
Michael Anderson Brown