Gospel According to First Squad: Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, 8/4/11

8 08 2011

Sometimes, theater criticism becomes a chore. On several of our recent theater dates, Tony Frankel and I have lamented that writing a review of a mediocre show seems hardly worth our (unpaid) time and effort. Do our reviews matter? Who is reading? Does our writing disappear into the blogosphere as soon as it is posted, or does it contribute to an ongoing dialogue and critical conversation as we hope?

Then something comes along like Gospel According to First Squad, currently running at Santa Monica’s Powerhouse Theatre. I was not assigned to review this show; I simply attended with an Ovation Voter friend on Thursday evening. But I felt compelled to write about it afterwards. Shows like Gospel According to First Squad remind me why I started reviewing LA theater in the first place. Some shows demand to be seen and demand to be discussed. Even if no one else reads my review, writing becomes a necessary process of sorting through my own thoughts on a provocative new play. Several days later, I am still processing Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble’s gripping production of Gospel According to First Squad.

Over the past five years, LATE has crafted three plays with artistic director / playwright Tom Burmester concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The third of The War Cycle trilogy, Gospel According to First Squad follows a unit based at Command Outpost Michigan at the mouth of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The action is framed in flashbacks as each American soldier is interviewed on a deadly clash that erupts just before the squad’s redeployment to the US. The precise details of this clash remain ambiguous – and for good reason. This is a play questioning the existence of Absolute Truth.

The violence of this war is not simply physical; Gospel According to First Squad is more broadly interested in the violence of ideology. With dynamic direction by Burmester and Danika Sudik, the racism and sexism generated by military life shocks even as it (sometimes disturbingly) entertains throughout the play. The ensemble feeds off one another with a fierce herd mentality – for instance encouraging the innocent Michael Hanson as PFC Wright to get over his unfaithful wife with a deep and righteous chant, “Fuck that bitch!” AJ Meijer’s gentle and sympathetic Muhammad, the squad’s Afghani translator, endures excruciating verbal and physical denigration; he suffers for an unfortunate American stereotype of “his people” and the extremist faction of his Muslim faith.

Indeed, religion is the point of the most contentious ideological violence in Gospel. Absolute Truth hinders one from accepting others diverse experiences and beliefs – and fierce defense of one Way over another often explodes in physical violence. Sgt. Taylor’s tight-knit squad begins to fracture when a self-righteous evangelical Christian named Gabriel (the precise and pointed Trevor Algatt) joins, armed with Pashto-language Bibles to distribute to the Afghanis. Is this war a modern-day religious crusade? What differentiates Gabriel’s mission from that of a Muslim jihadist? In many ways, Gospel is a perfect companion piece to The Word Begins, which just closed at Rogue Machine. Both pose the challenging question: How has “God” become a force of fragmentation and violence, rather than one of unification and unconditional love?

Muhammad’s role as an interpreter brings force to human acts of translation and interpretation in religion; he represents a refreshing diversity of Muslim faith and experience, beyond the violent extremist perspectives that dominate media representation. Disappointingly, the multiple Christian characters are not as well rounded as this single Muslim figure in Gospel; by the end, all the play’s Christian characters seem to represent the same right-wing faction. This is not my Christianity, nor is it that of many of my friends.

Still, Gospel According to First Squad compellingly seeks for some sort of ethical, humanist Truth to guide our actions. This moral compass weighs forcefully on our common humanity and our living bodies, poised precariously on the edge of death. However stern in public, a nagging conscious comes to bear on a bent and broken Sgt. Taylor in his private moments. As he cradles a uniformed teddy bear that once belonged to his daughter, Jonathan Redding brings brilliant emotional force to the cracks beneath the veneer of self-righteous American military authority.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Los Angeles Theater Ensemble is that Gospel According to First Squad paves the way for a consideration of the political issues at stake, more than the elements of the theatrical performance itself. Burmester’s script feels a little stylistically disjunct from Act I to Act II, but the roaring ideological debates, crisp direction, and stellar ensemble performances are continually compelling. One of the most challenging and important new works currently running in Los Angeles, Gospel According to First Squad is worth the time – and even more worth the post-show thought and discussion.

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15 08 2011
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO FIRST SQUAD: 100% – SWEET : Bitter Lemons

[…] SWEET Perhaps the greatest testament to Los Angeles Theater Ensemble is that Gospel According to First Squad paves the way for a consideration of the political issues at stake, more than the elements of the theatrical performance itself. Burmester’s script feels a little stylistically disjunct from Act I to Act II, but the roaring ideological debates, crisp direction, and stellar ensemble performances are continually compelling. One of the most challenging and important new works currently running in Los Angeles, Gospel According to First Squad is worth the time – and even more worth the post-show thought and discussion. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

15 08 2011
Critique of the Week : Bitter Lemons

[…] GOSPEL ACCORDING TO FIRST SQUAD Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

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