The World Premiere of “Red Badge Variations” is a brilliant start to the 35th season of the Coterie Theatre. The show is compelling, from its talented and energetic cast to the tight direction by Kyle Hatley and wonderful script by Melissa Cooper.
“Red Badge Variations” is a gripping, touching and frequently hilarious story of five young soldiers who have to adapt to a brutal new world without losing themselves completely.
The play spans one year, depicting the lives of the soldiers in Afghanistan. It tells the story of Henry Fleming’s (Jacob Aaron Cullum) arrival to a unit in Afghanistan, replacing a member who recently died. The new recruit, known as an FNG, or a Friggin’ New Guy, has a rocky start with the group, but slowly finds his place among them and wins their respect.
The other members are a motley crew, with the hot-headed Wilson (Matt Leonard), religious and quiet Tat (Francisco Javier Villegas), goofy and loud JC (Matthew Joseph) and Doc Bird (Jake Walker), erstwhile bird-watcher, DJ and philosopher.
The play is an update of the classic Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage,” with the timeless story of the war overseas.
Music plays a central role in the characters’ lives. As Doc points out, “Soldiers gotta sing.” The incorporation of music and rhythm into moments of the soldier’s lives is a brilliant choice that pays off well, from a simple stomping beat to renditions of “Black and Yellow” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.” This success is also thanks to the musical talents of the acting ensemble.
Some of the most honest parts of the play are during musical interludes. When the soldiers are hyped up after a skirmish, they work out their energy with a hip hop/rock mix Doc has created. The quiet, contemplative moment that comes from this explosion of energy is an honest piece of theatre. They bicker and harass each other, but they slowly form connections and bond over details of their past.
Fleming functions as the audience’s entry into the world of these soldiers. It was the small background details that illuminated the characters’ dreams and pasts, like JC’s history of living on a turkey farm, Tat’s family and Wilson’s survivor guilt.
The acting of all five cast members is commendable. Even those with less scripting pull out the most in their characters. All five promising talents live in their characters for the hour-and-15-minute show.
The show reconfigured The Coterie’s performance space so that the audience surrounds the actors and stage on all four sides, which mimics the statement in the show that there is no front line in the war, and the enemy is all around. The paranoia and constant fear mingled with boredom is shown through the set.
Doc Bird says, “Everything that lives is broken.” The experiences and the fighting can slowly break them, if not physically, then emotionally. It is through relationships with one other and camaraderie that they can stay human. “Break and mend” becomes the mantra of the group, who strive to make it home.
The show builds a sense of fatalistic dread for the audience as the soldiers grow closer to the end of deployment. The show’s final moments are chilling and beautiful.
The show runs through Oct. 5 at the Coterie theatre in Crown Center. For more information or tickets, go to http://thecoterie.org/.