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The Horror of War on Stage
By David Swanson
"Prophecy" is the title of a new play by Karen Malpede, and I'm here to attempt the unamerican task of telling you to see it without telling you it's a comedy. In fact, I'm going to confess that I had to take a break from it and recover before I could write about it. I felt like I'd taken a blow with an enormous sledge hammer, even though I knew that a whole orchestra of smaller instruments had produced what I was feeling.
It was not a bad feeling, not an undesirable feeling. The play is a thing of beauty, and not all beauty fits into that Hollywood sensation of wouldn't-such-a-thing-be-sweet-but-I-bet-they're-divorced-in-a-year-and-I-shouldn't-have-had-that-last-gallon-of-coke.
There was also comfort in the fact that someone had written this play and understood the grief that we all know is real even when we avoid it. And I merely read the play. If a group of actors can successfully perform something with this much emotional intensity (far more just in reading it than in any antiwar movie I've seen), I think there will be more comfort in that, and in the solidarity of feeling in the audience, many of whose members will probably go home without imagining the play to be at all political.
And yet there is something unavoidably political in depicting soul shattering grief when George W. Bush is off golfing and the root cause of masses of people enduring the misery performed here now bears the brand name of a peace prize laureate. That thought may occur to people the day after they see this play. It won't hit them while they're in it. Politics is off-stage. Wars are off-stage. Violence is off-stage. And the unfairness of war to all variety of parties, from those creating it, to those hit by it, to those trying to undo it, to those trying to avoid it, is built into this drama in a manner that reminds me of how James Baldwin dealt with the unfairness of racism.
For perhaps the first third of the play, war is hardly even discussed. The early scenes are relatively calm as we enter into the lives of characters, some young, and some old enough to have lived more than once, to have gone through stages and relationships that -- it turns out -- interacted tragically with more than one insane distant war for empire. By the time you're two-thirds into the play, however, these wars have come exploding into these people's lives from distant lands, from decades past, and from the present, including through newly revealed understandings for the audience and the characters of what's already happened in the early scenes, and a new understanding for some of the characters of what happened much earlier in their lives.
These explosions take the form of horror, regret, jealousy, resentment, shame, fear, beauty, compassion, and perseverance. And they leave the stage covered with two feet of blood although we never see a drop.
I look forward to seeing this performed in person in New York, where it is being staged from May 27 to June 20 with a cast of award-winning actors that may just be up to it. The play will be performed Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. at Theater Three Collaborative, Inc., East 4th Street Theater (84 East 4th Street, New York, NY): http://www.theaterthreecollaborative.org