War comes to the Coterie stage in the form of “Red Badge Variations,” playwright Melissa Cooper’s ambitious attempt to transform the essence of Stephen Crane’s classic novel about the Civil War into a tale of American soldiers in the here and now.
This world-premiere production directed by Kyle Hatley proves to be an absorbing 70 minutes of theater. The Coterie is, technically speaking, a young-audiences theater but this extended one-act doesn’t flinch when addressing the pain, grief, fear and emotional intensity of soldiers in harm’s way.
The play follows five men serving a 10-month tour of duty in a country that is never named but feels like Afghanistan. The newest member of the unit is Henry Fleming (also the name of Crane’s protagonist in “The Red Badge of Courage”), who is there to take the place of a soldier killed by a mortar shell.
The bookish Henry must win the respect of his still-grieving comrades but that’s no simple task. Gradually he finds his place within the group after proving himself in combat.
The combination of good performances, vivid lighting effects by designer Art Kent and the impressive work of sound designer Joseph Concha captures the reality of young men literally thrust into a life-and-death situation.
As Henry, Jacob Aaron Cullum navigates the transition from untested novice to a mature veteran and leader. Matt Leonard plays Wilson, Henry’s angry and distraught nemesis in the early going. Although the performance seems blustery and one-dimensional initially, Leonard finds layers of depth in the character.
Delivering a splendid performance as JC, whose monologues about the pleasures of raising turkeys back home drive his comrades nuts, is Matthew Joseph, making his Kansas City debut. Joseph is a pint-sized actor with enormous charisma.
Francisco Javier Villegas brings his charming persona to the production as Tat, a soldier who reads only the Bible until Henry shows up with a kit full of books — including Crane’s novel. Because he takes religion seriously, Tat is bothered by the moral questions in inherent in war and the taking of human lives.
The spiritual center of this group of young fighters is Doc, a bird-watcher and artist who tirelessly exudes a sense of humor to keep his buddies’ spirits up. Jake Walker gives us a terrific performance in this role, vivid and nuanced. Doc is the character likely to haunt you after the house lights go up.
P.J. Barnett and Scott Hobart have co-designed an unusual but effective set consisting of raw floorboards, sandbags, a little piece of open ground and a bunk area. Different seats may offer radically different visual perspectives.
Plays about war are tricky. You can’t really show any fighting, but you can certainly show its effects. And those plays can wrestle with the central question of most war narratives: What is the meaning of life when life is so expendable?
Cooper eloquently addresses that question in a play that sticks with you.