Playwright: adapted by Matt Foss, from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
At: Red Tape Theatre at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: RedTapeTheatre.org; free. Runs through: Sept. 14
World War I might not have been truly the "war to end all wars," but it was the war that banished attrition as a viable method of conducting armed combat. The ballistic equivalent of a staring contest, the hardships associated with stationary readiness made for more casualties on both sides resulting from disease, privation, anomie and psychological disorders than ever fell to hostile fire.
Their discomforts encompass such familiar GI blues as the lack of food, female company and news of home, along with corruption among the higher-ups, malingerers in the ranks, and the willful ignorance of civilians. Matt Foss' adaptation shuns overt proclamations of partisanship ( "I never SAW a Frenchman until I was aiming a gun at them!" declares a farmer's son ) to instead convey the universality of lifeand deathon the front lines so vividly that we almost forget that these forlorn frightened lads areaccording our governmentsour enemies.
Our empathy is escalated by Foss' directive to producing companies recommending noncompliance with literal visual/aural representation in casting. Thus, while Remarque's characters retain their designated identities, the Red Tape Theatre's ensemble reflects fluidity regarding ethnic, gender and other physical restrictions. Our narrator, the sensitive Private Baumer, for example, is played by cis-female Elena Victoria Feliz, while Brenda Scott Wlazlo's sadistic Corporal Himmelstoss barks orders in treble range and Joel Rodriguez's sly Private Westhus stalks the latter in a wheelchair.
The walls of the bunkers where most of the action transpires are constructed from a row of pianosobjects well-suited to patrolling with silent step, scrambling atop in frenzied attack, or sheltering beneath from artillery shells exploding in bursts of spray-bottle dust. Their metaphor is extended by a soundscape incorporating evocative martial riffs from "Gimme Shelter" "Volunteers" and "Masters of War." Visual spectacle also includes choreographed blackout creeps lit solely by flashlights and harrowing glimpses of field surgery.
The performance time may only be a fraction over 90 minutes, but by the final moments before a deceptively gentle tune plays us out of the Greenhouse, we are as emotionally exhausted as if we ourselves had marched in the much-handed-down boots of weary veterans.