Though British playwright John Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's Dance was written in 1959, its story has obvious resonance today, as army deserters return home to agitate against war. The details of the war and what the troops went through are vague enough to be universal, yet that very universality keeps them at a distance.
There's a thick layer of Brechtian alienation between the audience and the action in TheatreFIRST's production of Musgrave, directed by Clive Chafer. The characters' penchant for speaking in rhyme and bursting into ballads give it an almost Shakespearean quality in which many play the fool, declaiming florid truths with a wink. It also often makes it hard to follow exactly what's going on.
Black Jack Musgrave and three privates come to a small English mining town ostensibly as army recruiters but secretly to acquaint the townsfolk with the horror of war. The town already has enough to worry about, between its wronged women and its starving miners locked out for threatening a strike.
Though the characters are basic types, with names like "A Pugnacious Collier," the cast fleshes them out well. Chris Ayles deflates nicely as Musgrave from stiff attention to folksy ease when muckety-mucks leave the room, though his hidden fanaticism is well hidden indeed. The privates are more hair-trigger, especially the menacing Hurst (Noah James Butler) and the grim, sick-to-death-of-death ex-mercenary Attercliffe (Garth Petal). Boyish Sparky (Rowan Brooks) is harder to figure he professes to be a light-hearted, joking fellow, but comes off as liable to fall apart in a strong wind.
Headed up by Emily Jordan as the wild-eyed barmaid Annie, twitchy with rage, and Lindsey Murray as the grounded, world-weary pub owner, the townsfolk are an entertaining lot, including a bombastic mayor (Norman A. Hall); snooty parson (Tom Reilly), buffoonish constable (David Fierro), and three menacing miners (Mike Vaughn, Ekow Daniels, and Larry LePaule). Just plain disturbing is the gape-mouthed drunken bargeman, played by Mitchell Field very much like his recent Alfred Doolittle in Diablo Light Opera's My Fair Lady, only more sinister in context.
The trouble in the play is that the haunted soldiers are so far gone in their new crusade that they're of no use to the townsfolk. The trouble with the play is similar: It makes its point that war makes monsters of people, but so generally that it's hard to connect it to modern realities. In high art, as in mass-market entertainment, when bad things happen to abstract, indistinct people, it's easy to forget they're happening at all.
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