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'War Music' weighs destruction, creation

October 26, 2002|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

The first moments of "War Music," a new play by Bryan Davidson, are meant to evoke that delicious sense of anticipation before a concert: the swirling cacophony of the instrumentalists' warm-up, followed by the conductor stepping onto the podium, raising his baton and....

Just then, an air-raid siren screams.

It's a sobering bit of symbolism, inviting the viewer to think not just about war's disruptions but about all of the lives lost -- all of the music silenced forever.

How to endure that? In a haunting presentation by Playwrights' Arena and the Echo Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, "War Music" suggests that the truest counterbalance to so much destruction is to go on creating.

Like an orchestral work, the play is divided into movements, each inspired by the life of a composer -- Frank Bridge, Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen -- during World Wars I and II.

The first movement charges into a WWI firefight that has pinned two British soldiers to the ground. One is a pianist, Douglas Fox (Jeremy Maxwell), a friend of Bridge's (Morgan Rusler). The battle claims one of Fox's arms, prompting Bridge to write the piano piece "Three Improvisations for the Left Hand," of which the "At Dawn" section, woven into the action, trembles with the promise of renewal.

Pondering Webern's accidental death at the hands of an American soldier in post-WWII occupied Austria, the second movement focuses not so much on the composer (Christopher Shaw) as on the GI (John Prosky), whose life is shattered by the event, and an aspiring musician (Maxwell) inspired by Webern.

The final movement is inspired by "Quartet for the End of Time," which Messiaen wrote while a prisoner of war in 1941. Awaiting a rehearsal of the piece, three fellow prisoner-musicians (Kevin Crowley, Shaw and Prosky) enact a comic "Waiting for Godot"-like routine while Messiaen (Maxwell) is led through the process of creation by Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows (Nancy Bell).

The play's gorgeously surreal visuals, staged by Jessica Kubzansky, reach their fullest expression here. Wandering through an ethereal forest (dangling strips of white fabric in Susan Gratch's set design, painted in dreamy pastels by Jeremy Pivnick's lighting), Messiaen gathers up all of the sorrow from the previous stories, mixes it with such timeless beauty as birdsong, and turns it into an enduring act of redemption.


`War Music'

Where: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles

When: Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.

Ends: Nov. 17

Price: $15-$20

Contact: (213) 473-0640.

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

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