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Straight into the face of war

November 18, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

"When Patrick came home in a coffin, the media contacted me," says Nadia McCaffrey. "They asked if I wanted the media to cover it. I knew it was forbidden to take photos of coffins with flags on them. But I thought about it and said, 'Yes.' "

The blond, middle-aged speaker is the mother of Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey from Tracy, Calif. He died in Iraq in 2004, and she has worked tirelessly to keep the memory of his life -- and the reality of loss -- in sight.

The visceral force behind McCaffrey's determined, sorrowful recollection is the most powerful experience in "The Fifth Commandment," the multimedia collage broadly examining war in the context of the biblical injunction "Thou shalt not kill." The production, which opened at REDCAT on Thursday in a co-presentation with the International Latino Theatre Festival of Los Angeles (FITLA), ends its short run this evening.

If the ambition guiding the piece's construction is more impressive than the actual performance, it's probably because none of the other individuals onstage can approximate the raw urgency of McCaffrey's presence. Her need to communicate connects her heart to her words in a way that eludes the rest of the well-intentioned cast, which includes two former Marines, Matthew Howard and Cameron White, as well as local participants who serve as performers.

Devised by Costa Rican American Elia Arce, "The Fifth Commandment" focuses on ordinary lives caught in a situation of extraordinary violence. The artistic method juxtaposes profound questions (derived from interviews Arce conducted with military personnel and those living around them) in a workshop environment incorporating personal testimony, performance art, film and community engagement.

How do men and women psychologically cope with their transformation into troops trained for murder? How can they be expected to recover their everyday humanity as civilians again? Why is the brutality of war allowed to remain so distant to Americans? Who is witnessing the boundless grief?

It's easy to avoid thinking about such things given the feelings of helplessness and guilt that unavoidably ensue. During a recent news program on Iraq veterans being fitted for artificial limbs, the sacrifice of these mangled young men had a short-circuiting effect. I couldn't process what I was viewing.

Yet process it we must. The question is, how? Bombarded by images of global carnage, we have grown ever more immune to its stark horror. And our language, debased by partisan politics as well as glib journalism, rarely seems up to the challenge of honest reckoning.

This is where theater can play a role by creating a public space that encourages a deeper responsiveness to the issues dimly hanging over us. A few times Arce managed to achieve this: for example, in the reading of names of Iraqi and American casualties as audience members settled into their seats -- a simple act that immediately transformed the arty atmosphere of REDCAT into a site of commemoration.

Another instance involved asking people to stand when their year of birth was called out. Photo cutouts of casualties of war were then handed to those removed from the comfort and safety of their seats, illustrating the randomness of fate.

Less provocative were the monologues Arce delivered as various female characters flirtatiously circulating around military bases. What was intended to provide salty perspective on the flesh-and-blood nature of men sent into combat came off as self-consciously theatrical and thus out of keeping with the production's unvarnished activist aesthetic.

The film backdrops tend to hijack attention from what's happening onstage. Satiric gestures, such as a carnival barker dressed as Uncle Sam, are no match for the perversely serene footage of military exercises. And the biting wisdom of one shattered veteran on post-traumatic stress disorder ("How about a 'going to war and being able to sleep with a clear conscience' disorder?") is more vividly expressed through close-ups of a soldier's hollowed-out eyes.

Although the production's disjointed parts never yield a sustained intensity, "The Fifth Commandment" possesses something morally indispensable during wartime -- a willingness to confront the most brutal truths.

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