Monday, September 28, 2009

Guest Blog: The Contents of the Bags: A Review of Coming in Hot

By Jennifer McStotts

When the draft for Vietnam was in full swing, my father volunteered not because he believed in the war or lusted for battle, but because he couldn’t avoid the draft. He knew if he volunteered, he would get a better assignment, and if he survived, his life afterward would be more stable. A risky reason to enlist, but it is also common thinking among women who serve: the desire for training, for education, for opportunity and stability. Much like many women who serve today, his enlistment launched three decades of silence in his family. The first time I remember him mentioning Vietnam was in my late teens. We were in twining lines waiting for flu shots, staying together until we were divided, men to the left, women to the right. He stood just off my shoulder, and as we neared the split, he asked, “Are you squeamish about needles?”

I chuckled. “No, are you?”

To my surprise he gave the smallest shudder and said, as our lines split apart, “I’ve put parts into body bags that you couldn’t even tell were once a person, but for some reason needles still give me the creeps.”

He didn’t speak of his service even as I considered joining myself, except to say that a commission was better than enlistment and that serving as a woman was not easy. Choosing to remain a civilian isn’t something I regret; in fact, it is a luxury for which I am thankful, but it was pressing on my mind as I sat down, Saturday evening in Tucson, Ariz., for the performance of Coming in Hot.

The stageplay is an adaptation of selections from the Kore Press anthology, Powder: Writing by Women in the Military, from Vietnam to Iraq, which collects the work of nineteen women who served in the U.S. military in a variety of roles. Lisa Bowden and Shannon Cain, the co-editors, admit that they “went into the project with the idea that this work would contribute to the chorus of opposition to the war in Iraq . . . We saw immediately the necessity of setting aside any bias and agenda.” It was, nonetheless, this agenda, bias, and perspective that made me wonder if the adapted work would be solely anti-war, primarily a piece of activism, especially given that the work was produced by Kore Press and directed by Bowden.

What the audience witnessed was a well-balanced collection of monologues composed into a one-woman show featuring Jeanmarie Simpson (original score by accompanist Vicki Brown on strings and pedals, with recorded voice talents of Donald Paul Stockton and Kaylene Torregrossa). Before I go any further, I would like to applaud Simpson. While her performance wasn’t flawless, she was also presented with a nearly impossible task in portraying 14 distinct characters in 80 minutes, without costume change; she did so successfully — laudably — using her voice, her mannerisms, and her versatility as an actress, but at times the variety of accents necessary to distinguish so many women became less convincing.

It is troubling that the adaption and direction called for Simpson to do so in the first place. The message or point of the play could have been narrowed, refined, or, in the alternative, the number of monologues could have been reduced (19 contributions became 14 characters, and an even greater number of segments given the recurring appearance of Charlotte Brock’s character in Mortuary Affairs). Characters could have been conflated without much loss of narrative effect and without forcing Simpson to stretch to distinguish them; as one audience member said immediately after the performance, “There were too many stories. It was too much, and it didn’t say enough.”

That said, despite missed light cues, despite a few stuttered lines and awkward moments involving her blocking, Simpson brought life to characters within the simplicity of an otherwise stark production. The set consisted only of one chair and one table — more of an operating table, clinical and spare — which was primarily used for the Mortuary Affairs scenes in which Brock’s character stood over it as if looking down on a body. The lighting consisted of only a few overhead fixtures at various angles with the exception of one water effect and one flashlight held by a crew member. What felt strange, to me, was the balance the director struck between the one-woman show format — meant to emphasize character and message — and the use of recorded voice segments to supplement Simpson’s work. In addition, it was confusing that at first the recorded voices were only used for the male voice of a boot camp instructor, then a female voice for the character Simpson was portraying silently on stage, and finally that same female voice switched to a male role. While I don’t agree with one audience member’s assessment that it would have been better to focus on a very small number of stories — four being the number she mentioned — it did feel inconsistent to rely on the one-actor model while supplementing and distracting from her performance in a variety of ways.

The original score by Vicki Brown was a perfect accompaniment to the monologues. Brown used the same themes and structure each time Simpson returned to the recurring character of Charlotte Brock in the mortuary. At other times, her music set the heartbeat of the scene, calling its pace; at every moment, she took the pain and the challenge of Brock’s writing (and Simpson’s portrayal) to a higher level.

These recurring scenes pulled me in the most and made me think — again, as I often have before — of my father’s offhand comment. “I’ve put parts into body bags that you couldn’t even tell were once a person.” Brock says something very similar about “the contents of the bags” that Mortuary Affairs handled, especially in one harrowing scene in which the deceased is little more than “a head, a hand, and an arm.”

What Simpson, Bowden, and Cain attempted to do in the adaptation and performance was no easy task — to tell these stories and to grant these women their individual voices when their silence has been so pervasive. What perhaps made the sections by Brock so powerful was that she, too, was trying to give someone a voice, both herself in the world in which she found herself surrounded, but also the dead who lay upon that table.

About the Blogger

Jennifer McStotts is the daughter, niece, and ex-wife of United States Marines, as well as a second-year MFA student in creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in Future Anterior, in International Journal of Heritage Studies, and by Preservation Books.


Josie Warvelle said...

This isn't a review. You allude to things and don't explain them, you offer backhanded compliments and no substance. This show was a milestone on many levels and your blog post does nothing to serve the discussion it evokes. Review the show you saw, not the one you wish you had created because you happened to have read the book. And I don't think the woman in 'Mortuary Affairs' was Charlotte Brock. I think the character was built with Charlotte's words as a departure point. Honestly - you should take this one back to the drawing board.

Lisa B said...

your guest blogger fails to understand the nature of collaboration by assuming the director (me) strong armed her unwilling actor (Simpson)---who is also one of the co-adaptors---into doing 14 different characters. O arduous task! This 37-yr acting veteran of Shakespeare's best pulled and pushed every angle of this play to make sure it was (and will be) the best it could, right along side the rest of us. there were no unwilling suspects, here-- just dedicated artists who care about the whole. These are not monologues--they are scenes in dialog with the other elements on stage: Vicki's music (which is a live presence with character), the voiceovers (also live), the projections, the audience---each serving their purpose. The adaptation is its own creative work. Our intention was not to represent the book in another form, but to create a piece of theater in its own right that brought to life these and other women's experiences (there are pieces in the play that are not in the book). To conflate, or pre-digest, the number of characters and experiences is to give short-shrift to their depths and differences. I believe this would be a disservice to the distinct voices the play is trying to elevate. Theater is not television---it asks you to think, it asks for your willing participation and imagination. ---Lisa Bowden, director, writer, producer, publisher, editor; daughter, niece, and aunt of current and former military.

Jeanmarie said...

This is very odd. These days with the cyber-world so full of words, words, words and opinions, it's difficult to decide what is respond-worthy. This piece is more a personal reflection, in my view, than a mature, artistic critique, coming much more from the eye of a woman who has a perspective shaped by being a reader of the book and the daughter of her father.

I appreciate Josie's comment, above – Charlotte Brock is most certainly not a character in the play! In fact, Brock wrote another piece we call “Women Warriors” that is almost the antithesis of “Mortuary Affairs,” in tone and personality.

Furthermore, Vicki Brown is no accompanist! She is a full duet partner, in dialogue with me as I pour words into the silence. We crafted the moments together, with Lisa Bowden, our director, who is the finest I have ever worked with in my life – daring, creative and generous.

'Coming In Hot' is not finished and hopefully it never will be. Meanwhile, we will continue to develop it and ourselves as we embark on the next chapter – an international tour.

---Jeanmarie Simpson, writer, critic, actor, director, singer, mother, daughter, sister, niece and grand daughter of current and former military, including two who were killed in action.

Simmons B. Buntin said...

Thanks for the comments. Jennie has not yet had the opportunity to respond, but if I may add a few words to the discussion:

Though the first commenter, Josie, may not see this blog post as such, it is a "review," though what we call the response really doesn't matter. Ms. McStotts is not guilty of not doing her homework or relying too much on the book, as the responses here suggest. Rather, she was responding to the play as an audience member. How else, in a largely informal format such as a blog and in a next-day response, can she? She shouldn't be criticized for her confusion when that is what, in part, she felt after viewing the piece. To bring that to light is important, isn't it?

I've spoken with two other audience members who both called Coming in Hot nothing less than amazing, but they are close to the production and we wanted a response from someone unaffiliated with the production or Kore Press.

So thanks again for the comments, and the corrections on McStott's in accuracies, but let's also recognize that there must have been so much going on in the piece that she found it difficult to draw the correct correlations at all times. Knowing that the correlations are critical, it stands that any reviewer unsure of those relationships would include her concerns in her response.

Thanks much,

Simmons Buntin

Lisa B said...

Every response is different and valuable. Thanks for caring enough about what you saw to write about it.