The National Theatre of Scotland's "Black Watch" begins with a soldier defending his choice of profession, and it ends with a haunting, hypnotic depiction of exactly what that profession entails.
"I'm no knuckle-dragger. I wanted to be in the army," says Cammy, a former member of Scotland's celebrated Black Watch regiment and our guide through director John Tiffany's transfixing production taking place at Chicago's Broadway Armory, where National Guardsmen like my late father Otto Vitello once trained, and where the show played last year to universal acclaim as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's international series.
Location: Broadway Armory, 5817 N. Broadway, Chicago. (312) 595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 21
Running time: About two hours, no intermission
Tickets: $38 to $52
Parking: $12 valet, metered street parking
Rating: For adults; strong language, violence
Adapted by writer Gregory Burke from interviews with Black Watch soldiers who served in Iraq in 2004, "Black Watch" is a gripping, unforgettable homage that examines the soul of the warrior: the bond he shares with his fellow soldiers; the pride, frustration, terror and grief he experiences on the battlefield.
Directed with compassion and ingenuity by Tiffany (Tony Award-winning director of "Once"), "Black Watch" combines storytelling, movement, music, video and sound in an impressive theatrical display that owes a great deal to mesmerizing, military-inspired choreography by Steven Hoggett ("Once," "American Idiot") and music director Davey Anderson's spare, evocative arrangements of traditional Scottish folk tunes.
The action unfolds on Laura Hopkins' sparsely furnished set -- comprised of scaffolding and steel shipping containers -- which is flanked by stadium-style audience seating.
The play opens in a Scottish pub where Cammy (Ryan Fletcher, a most affecting everyman) and his mates warily consent to share their war stories with a writer, played by the nervously energetic Robert Jack. The action flashes back to Camp Dogwood near Fallujah, where the Black Watch has been deployed to support U.S. Marines, sent as one politician fumes, "to do an impossible job." Here grim battlefield humor and genuine bonhomie gives way to sudden terror as the tedium of war is interrupted by the occasional bone-rattling blast of enemy fire.
Scenes shift back and forth between the pub and battlefield, with several notable detours. Among them is a fantasy sequence in which a recruiter (a feverish Stephen McCole) convinces young men to enlist by first invoking Scottish King Robert the Bruce and then promising them they'll be home by Christmas. In another, Fletcher's Cammy recounts in a bravura performance, the history of the regiment -- which has participated in every major international conflict over the last 287 years -- through a slyly staged series of costume changes.
Of course politics come into play. One soldier observes, they're fighting for "porn and petrol." Another character references the motive for the invasion, described as "the worst blunder in western history." And yet, that subject doesn't dominate Burke's straightforward, deferential and unsentimental script. In fact, the soldiers claim they have no animosity toward the Iraqis -- except the insurgents firing at them -- or suicide bombers, an enemy for which these warriors are completely unprepared, as is revealed in a jaw-dropping scene that is the theatrical equivalent of a punch to the solar plexus.
In a production that is both intimate and epic, it's personal stories, not politics, that make "Black Watch" so compelling. Case in point: The exquisitely moving scene where soldiers -- reading letters from home -- express their feelings of fear and longing in a kind of individual sign language. It is an intensely private moment, poignantly expressed by Tiffany's razor-sharp young cast, which in addition to Fletcher, Jack and McCole includes Cameron Barnes, Scott Fletcher, Andrew Fraser, Adam McNamara, Richard Rankin, Chris Starkie and Gavin Jon Wright. Kudos to all.
Last but not least is "Black Watch's" extraordinary, frenetic finale which unfolds as a combination military parade and battlefield scramble, to the majestic sounds of pipes and percussion. In a show comprised of affecting moments, this visceral portrayal of why soldiers fight, is the most riveting of all.