Thursday 24 October 2013

Armstrong's War perfect for ACT Revue stage

The plot of playwright / filmmaker Colleen Murphy's play Armstrong's War that had its world premiere performance last night at the ACT Revue stage is straightforward. Through fate, two people coincidentally and symbolically named Armstrong come together in an Ottawa soldiers' rehab hospital. Halley Armstrong (Kitsilano High School sophomore Matreya Scarrwener) is a Girl Guide in the 'Pathfinder' cohort of 12-14 year olds wanting to earn every GG merit badge imaginable. To obtain the Community Service badge, she must make six weekly visits to soldier Michael Armstrong to read to him (recent UVic acting grad Mik Byskov). She chose him because they share the same surname, though unrelated.

Awaiting re-deployment, Cpl. Armstrong is in hospital to treat multiple leg fractures from an IED explosion in "Af" -- as Canadian forces refer to Afghanistan colloquially. Halley's first reading selection is a goofy teen detective mystery a la the Nancy Drew stuff from back in the day. But on Week 2 Michael selects the American Civil War classic novel by Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, which is metaphor for war wound. They alternate reading pages to one another, and it is through Courage that the personal and dramatic insights begin to occur.

A two-hander, Armstrong's War explores how two people of "opposite" ages (12 and 21) face their personal battles through the stories they mount in the process. Fact is Michael is injured psychologically by his Afghanistan tour more than physically. For her part, Halley is wheelchair'd as the result of a spine fracture a few years previously. While he is a tormented soul exorcising war demons, she is mostly optimistic and chipper despite her physical limitations and bouts of typical pre-teen hormonal rushes.

Director Mindy Parfitt has done a remarkable job coaching two young actors in their first professional roles. They reach and stretch themselves and succeed in pulling the life from Murphy's excellent script off the page and onto the stage.

Plot overview : Halley is bubbly and effervescent and a self-described reading fiend. As the play opens, she rolls through Michael's door, promptly announces her "mission", and proceeds to read the detective mystery aloud, histrionically and motor-mouthy, just as she is herself. Michael is hiding under his hospital bed. He tries to kick her out, calling her GG merit badge quest "bullshit compassion". He tells her that "solace won't save me, pity won't help me". When she leaves, he crawls back under the bed to talk to the ghost of his ex-comrade Robbie who was blown up in the same IED attack.

Back Halley comes for Week 2, and the read of RBoC begins, her going first. In a wonderful decision, director Parfitt has Halley put on a fake southern accent to read the American tale. Great comic decision. As well, however, Halley starts to reveal her past and talks of a ski accident that she says "ended my Olympic career at age nine". But she insists "I try not to look back, I look ahead."

The play continues with each of the six week sessions forming a mini-act in the 90-minute intermission-free performance. By Week 3 Michael has read RBoC at least twice on his own. The novel-reading stops and the real essence of the play begins to emerge : the two Armstrongs vigorously and heatedly exchange points-of-view about life, death, war, ethics, pride, courage, what-is-truth, fate, choice, hope and loyalty.

How is this possible in 90 short minutes, you ask. Because the juxtaposition of characters is like a brother nine years older comes home from his Afghanistan war tour and meets his 7th Grade pre-teen sister he hasn't seen since Grade 5.  She's filled with opinions and challenges and curiosity and assertions based on her developing, agile mind and all the fiction reading she does. E.g. she asks Michael "Is Canada going to win the war?" -- as if the NATO military exercise there is like the US Civil War with known combatants in recognizable coloured uniforms. Michael tries to explain : "No one's gonna win because it's a counterinsurgency; you can't defeat an insurgency, only marginalize it." Such intel is largely lost on Halley due to her naivete. For a junior high schooler, there's no worldly context to help her grasp it.

The balance of the piece focuses on Michael being inspired by RBoC to write his own story. He titles it "Armstrong's War" and after he reads it to Halley the two of them have a visceral argument over his views of "how death works" in war. The catalyst for the argument is his revelation of the "blood pact" he had with Robbie in case either one of them was injured catastrophically. 

Halley responds next visit with her own version of "Armstrong's War" -- an edited and re-written cut at Michael's story that changes the ending drastically based on Halley's view of the sanctity of life at all costs, even in war. By the end of the play a major irony is revealed : that Halley's fictional re-write is closer to the actual "fact" and "truth" of what happened to Michael and Robbie on the road outside Kabul than Michael's version. And Halley's "real" story of her spinal cord injury -- a car wreck -- is what we suspected all along (is anyone truly on an Olympics career arc by age 9...? but then I may be naive here).

Character take : The beauties of the Murphy script are many. She captures wonderfully well the insouciance and cheeky self-righteousness of the 7th Grade mind and all the patois that goes with it. The cell-phone lippy blasts at Mom -- unknown in the benign 50's -- that are commonplace to-day. Even the swearing Halley mirrors from Michael is magnified. After an exchange of heated Fuck you's, Halley rolls out the door with the ringer : "Fuck you times a thousand!" Terrific! And during a poignant and revelatory scene with Michael when her cell phone interrupts, again, and it's Mom hovering over her, again -- Halley explodes at her : "Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up..!" A chill ran up my spine and a brief tear rose to my eye. Ahhh, been there -- more than once. I get it. From both perspectives. 

Director Parfitt's blocking of Halley in her 'chair was, simply, superb. She has Halley spin in circles; turn her back on Michael each time her cell rings; roll upstage to give Michael the downstage priority when he discourses vehemently. She coaches Halley to rely on finger-points and hand-flips to emphasize her comments, and it works well indeed. And the instantaneous flip-flop from Halley "talking serious talk" to angst-ing over her fickle friend Jacquie -- who calls her "cumbersome" and "slow" but is overweight herself and relies on Halley to do her homework for her -- this is precisely the kind of faux-schizy behaviour today's parents are obligated to suffer through with teens.

Meanwhile Michael's work-through of the PTSD he vigorously denies he suffers is powerful in Murphy's hands, too. He is utterly convincing as someone returned from a horrible war "theatre", to use that dubious expression. Angry, confused, bitter, his processing of his nightmare over the course of the play rings true. In the end the exchange between Halley and Michael all about life's choices 
-- vs. situations over which we truly do not have control -- brings the thematic wrap to the piece. How one's choices can impact the heart and the role hope might play in one's life.

But once again, good as the script is, it's Parfitt's blocking of Michael's character that really resonated. His "exchanges" with his crutch to favour his shattered leg; the huff-breath sucking-sound as he hops to relieve his excruciating pain; the slow-steady improvements in his walking over the play's six weeks lapsed time; his positioning on the hospital bed -- back-to-the-audience while reading (!), his flopping like a rag-doll when exasperated with Halley; his cuddling of the pillow "Robbie" -- all excellent stage direction that is well-well-executed by Mik Byskov.

Production values :  Set Designer Naomi Sider captures hospital drab right smartly, my favourite bit being the properly oversized hallway door replete with unlubricated squeak, as if on cue for each Halley entrance / exit. Also the soda cans stacked in and around the wastebasket, bespeaking institutional neglect. Nice. Sound Designer Candelario Andrade put together an intriguing soundscape of wind, flowing water, and low electro-drone hum that are vaguely familiar but mostly foreign. This eerie montage quickly displaces us to a land far away and menacing. Costumes by Carmen Alatorre are perfect for both characters -- his "uniform", hers teeny & loud & changeable. Lighting Designer Conor Moore blends interior rheo changes with sun/moon exterior moods to good effect.

Who gonna like : This is a play to admire. The script is tight and believable. Selected actors are not late-20-somethings with lengthy resumes as they were at London's Finborough Wine Cafe workshop version in August of this year. Choosing Byskov and Scarrwener -- so close to the ages of their characters -- was an act of faith and theatre-courage. While each has years ahead to fully grab character nuances and subtleties, the standing-o Ms. Scarrwener got from the house last night was well-deserved. Equal huzzah's to Mr. Byskov I say.

So it's two-in-a-row for ACT -- Armstrong's War paired with Venus In Fur. Plays to enjoy both the comic bits and the more serious issues about the myriad human foibles and follies they reveal. Stories. And the how-&-why stories are told the way they are -- the "what to leave in / what to leave out" that Bob Seger noted wistfully in his anthem Runnin' Against The Wind -- these nuances are what make words and peoples' stories such an intrigue, ever, to behold.


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