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Theater of War: Conflicts Past and Present Trigger a Trove of Stage Works

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Jul 08, 2014 04:05 PM EDT

The arts color the zeitgeist, but the zeitgeist inspires the arts just as much. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and memories of conflicts past continue to give rise to works for the stage.

Such shows can be tough to take, and a hard sell for mass audiences. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is the rare exception that made it to Broadway. But many others have created an impression off the Great White Way – Lynn Nottage's Ruined, Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, the National Theater of Scotland's Black Watch and Christopher Shinn's Dying City to name a few from recent years.

The litany goes on. In March 2014, 13th Street Rep premiered Joel Shatzky's play The Baghdad Diaries, in which interweaving monologues revealed the lives of a Sunni Iraqi woman, a civilian contractor's wife and the wife of a Marine during five years of the Iraq War.

This spring, Philadelphia audiences had a chance to see Paula Vogel's drama Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq. And Chicago theatergoers have a few more days to catch George Brant's one-woman show Grounded, which delves into the life of a female F-16 fighter pilot returning from the Iraq war to pilot drones over Afghanistan from the safety of a trailer outside Las Vegas.

Meanwhile in the Big Apple, next week the New York Musical Theatre Festival presents Deployed, Jessy Brouillard's new pop-rock musical set on a Baghdad military base where Emily (Janice Landry) and her interpreter Laila (Nina V. Negron) develop an unlikely friendship. Mindy Cooper directs a cast that also features several Broadway veterans.

Also in New York, the Between the Seas festival of contemporary dance, theater and music from the Mediterranean includes The Sacred Way: Protagonist and Hero?. Presented July 23-24, it explores immigrant and refugee life through the true story of Varis Miahel, an Afghan child who made his way alone to Greece. Created by Adonis Volanakis, Sara Galassini and Kristina Colovic, and produced by Unguarded, it comes off a March 2014 LaMama-supported work-in-progress performance at Dixon Place in New York.

Iraq and Afghanistan are freshest in memory, but earlier wars continue to exert influence on the theater world's creative energy. Over on Theatre Row, the world premiere of Walter Anderson's debut play Almost Home looks back to the 1960s with the return home of a young Marine, out of the frying pan of Vietnam but plunged into the fire of domestic wars at home. Michael Parva directs the Directors Company production running September 18 - October 12, 2014.

Back at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, Bayonets of Angst reaches still further back in time to bring to life the last remaining veterans of the American Civil War. Michael Lluberes directs a cast that includes Tony Award Nominee J. Robert Spencer (Next to Normal) as Abraham Lincoln in this bluegrass musical by Rick Kunzi, Justin Zeppa and Adam Barnosky.

However weary we may get of the "theater of war," we never tire of making art out of it. The Western armies in Iraq and Afghanistan have dwindled, but battlefield memories will continue to plague veterans for decades to come just as strife continues to bedevil those lands. Playwrights aren't likely to run out of relevant material any time soon. If ever.

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TagsIraq, Afghanistan, Musical, musical theater, plays about war, deployed the musical, NYMF, New York Musical Theatre Festival, Between the Seas

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