Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review - The American Pilot - Walking Shadow - 4 stars

“He brings in money, this one. Almost as good as having a cow.”

Worst. Deus Ex Machina. Ever.

I’ve been rolling Walking Shadow’s production of “The American Pilot” around in my head for days now. That’s a good thing.

I hate the last thirty seconds of the production. But I’m supposed to.

Do I agree with the strategy of collectively slapping the audience across the face and then shoving them out the door? Not entirely.

The American Pilot” by Scottish playwright David Greig is a really fine play, until it ends. Given all that had gone before, and the solid production Walking Shadow gives this play, I expected more. At the end. Up until then, I haven’t a quarrel with it. Grieg’s play, as directed by Amy Rummenie, is full of engaging characters, both likeable and unlikable, and brimming with colorful dialogue, by turns comic and poetic.

It’s not as if the ending comes as an enormous surprise. When a play begins with an injured Air Force officer being held captive in a barn somewhere in the hinterlands of a vaguely eastern European country, an audience member would be correct in assuming, “Well, this is all going to end in tears.”

The genius of the play, and this production, is for whom you end up shedding those tears. One would naturally assume that all our sympathies would be with the downed pilot, injured and far from home. He’s one of us. As portrayed by Joseph Bombard, the Pilot is a genial sort. He’s aware of the danger of his situation, particularly since he doesn’t speak the language of the locals and thus finds it very difficult to communicate. But it doesn’t keep him from enjoying the music on his iPod, or relishing and being thankful for the food which is brought to him. He’s not above asking for help, and he’s not above using threats. But you can tell most of his instincts are basically benign. He doesn’t mean anyone any harm, he just wants to go home.

But the pilot isn’t the main character here. He’s a catalyst through which the audience comes to know a small cross-section of the community in which he finds himself an unwilling and unwelcome guest. The Farmer (Peter Ooley), his practical wife Sarah (Amanda Wisner), and headstrong daughter Evie (Liana Simonds) are all drawn to the pilot. Ooley’s Farmer is the most conflicted of the three. Mostly he just wants the pilot off of his land and out of his life. He knows the presence of the pilot will bring them nothing but unwanted attention. Still, he can’t help wanting to protect the foreigner. Wisner’s depiction of the farmer’s wife is the most grounded of the characters. She loves her family and her life, and looks on dreams of something bigger and better as dangerous distractions. Simonds gives Evie an exuberance and sense of importance that her later actions bear out. Evie turns into a possible solution that no one was expecting.

Looking on the American pilot as more of a commodity or bargaining chip are the Trader (Sam Landman), the Captain (Robert Gardner), and his Translator (Matthew Vire).

The Trader knows people in high and low places and is always working those connections to make the maximum profit from a situation. The American pilot presents a host of opportunities. Even though Landman’s performance makes it clear you can’t trust the guy, you also can’t help liking him. He’s not all bad. Violence isn’t his preferred method of winning the game, though he’s not above using it.

The Captain is the leader of a local rebel group engaging the current government in civil war. He and his translator are the enforcers and de facto rulers of the territory, as far as the local inhabitants are concerned. People have good reason to fear the Captain, and Gardner’s combination of charm and menace in the role are well-balanced. This is a man who is weary of fighting, or even being in charge, and yet he sees no other way.

Vire’s translator has more of a young man’s fire and cynicism. When an American missile years ago landed on a wedding celebration, the Captain’s daughter was killed – a young woman who meant a great deal to the Captain and his translator alike. A young woman who also bears more than a passing resemblance to Evie.

The trick here is an oldie but a goodie. Everyone speaks English, fully understood by the audience, but the locals can’t understand the pilot, and he can’t understand them. What this does is not only spare us outrageous accents or subtitles, it also cannily allows the audience to get to know and like these characters in a way that a language barrier wouldn’t have allowed. These people living in a foreign land are just like us, the play is saying. The trick works. Watching this group of people and their predicament, as they struggle to figure out what the best thing to do is for all involved, you can’t help but be drawn in – and laugh, and be moved.

So when three soldiers arrive (J.F. Dauer, Brian Hesser, and Mark Benzel), brace yourself.

This play isn’t a simple indictment of the military or the use of force. The pilot isn’t simply a person. He’s the personification of a country, our country. The way we see our country, the way others see it, it’s all focused on this one man. But here’s where Grieg’s play isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. America the beautiful, the clumsy, the giant, the well-meaning, the rash. We get it. I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of people who step inside a theater to see a play like “The American Pilot” will have no trouble embracing its characters or its politics. If you’re preaching to the choir, then preach, for God’s sake, and everybody else’s. If you have our hearts, our full attention and our sympathy, do something with it. The play tantalizingly dangles several possible ways out of the mess. I’m not arguing for a happy ending. I’m not arguing for a play that does my thinking for me. I’m arguing for a play that doesn’t just reiterate an unpleasant truth for me, but instead goes one step further. Because a play that just leaves me in despair isn’t catalyzing the change I think it wants to see in the world. This production is made by people who are capable of delivering the message. This playwright is capable of stating the message. He just didn’t.

The final destination may not be what I’d hoped for, but the journey getting there, right down to that bitter end, is a really enjoyable ride. Though the ending breaks my heart and leaves me more than a little angry, the production is still…

Highly Recommended.

Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s production of “The American Pilot” performs through May 24, 2008 at the Theatre Garage (711 West Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, at the intersection of Lyndale and Franklin Avenues). Performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm, with a special pay what you can night on Monday, May 12th at 7:30pm. Reservations and more information can be found at www.walkingshadowcompany.org, or by calling 612-375-0300.

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