“The Veterans Project” from Footprints Collective & Mixed Blood

Maren Ward plays Eric in THE VETERANS PLAY PROJECT. Photo by Rich Ryan

Maren Ward plays Eric in THE VETERANS PLAY PROJECT.
Photo by Rich Ryan

First, let’s get the obvious out the way:  you should go see The Veterans Project.  It’s been developed and staged with great care by Leah Cooper at a fantastic space that was completely new to me (the Fort Snelling Base Camp)—and it gives voice and movement to a constituency that is not only uncommon in theatre, but, as the piece drives home again and again, often overlooked in every day life.  A year and a half in the works (according to Cooper’s director’s note), the artistic team of The Project gathered stories and experiences from over a hundred veterans from a diversity of backgrounds, ages, branches of service, times of deployment, etc—taking this wealth of material and shaping it into a performative event.

(I realize that Fort Snelling Base Camp is not, technically speaking, a theatre “space”—when you get there you’ll see why the artists make it easy to think of it that way).

I hesitate to outline all the lovely moments in The Veterans Project because its episodic, pastiche nature makes for many surprises—a wheelchair-bound vet, for example (the poignant, sorrowful William Hatton), alone onstage, suddenly seems in dialogue with a mysterious singer on the upper level—an angel, perhaps (soulfully voiced by Dawn Brodey)?  The Project’s musicality (composed & directed by Aaron Gabriel) lifts the material to yet another level, as does watching the performers suddenly morph into musicians and singers.  It’s very theatrical, and, at the same time, achingly naturalistic, as Hatton’s bowed head and grave expression tell us all we need to know about this “character”.

There’s a plot—of sorts—about two Hollywood Slicksters (Nick Perlick & Adam Whisner)—who come to the small town of Smedley to find “real” veterans—the film-makers want the town to transform a local landmark into a veterans’ memorial, building a movie around this “grassroots” event they’ve essentially created.  But the characters are weak (even though the actors are not), and their mission so unfocused its cynicism doesn’t really land until the very end (they also ignore a compelling side-story any film-maker worth his salt would have jumped at).  It’s an odd framing device for a piece with the same mission—are we to think Hollywood is greedy and manipulative, but our friends at Footprints Collective have only the purest of motives?  This is likely an accurate observation, but making a point of it seems a little weird.

Especially since every time the focus turns back to the actual veterans on stage we’re riveted.  I say “on stage” though, truthfully, as many of them are not actors, the scenes in the “pit” (it really is a great space) are often the most compelling.  We want to see their faces, hear their voices—isn’t that the point?  Charles Jones, Mitch Lynn Fowler, Kirsten Stephens and Rande Tomas lead a terrific group of men of women who bring to life the various stories Cooper and her team weave together.  These stories exist independently of the awkward framing device—indeed, the climax of that frame brings the only real misstep, reminding me of my days as a cater-waiter, watching a perfectly lovely wedding reception fall apart because every single guest needs to make a speech to the bride and groom.  Our brains love patterns; at the same time, once we “get” the pattern, we’re automatically ready for variance.  Despite the sometimes touching content, the sheer volume and repetition of the speeches drains them of value.

This contrasts dramatically with the accumulating power of the Veterans’ stories we see dramatized, and the Veterans performing them.  There’s clumsiness at first—these are not professional actors (though some are), and the program lists only a “script consultant”, not a playwright—but something mysterious happens over time, and I found myself caught up in the event itself despite its technical weaknesses.  It’s a compelling question—would a complete cast of professionals and a playwright have brought more strength and power to The Veterans Project or would they overwhelm the “authenticity” of the actual Veterans?  Because something is true, because the performers have “been there” does that automatically make for effective theatre?

Go see The Veterans Project and decide for yourself.



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