By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Pig Iron's anniversary remounting of their 2006 production of Gentlemen Volunteers, a show that successfully toured the world, is performed in English, in French, in song and in mime. This new production is directed by three of the original crew—Dan Rothenberg, Quinn Bauriedel and Dito van Reigersberg—but the cast is new, as is Michael Castillejos who provides the music on an accordion and sound effects on a Foley table.
The gentlemen volunteers of the title are two young men, right out of Yale, who sign up to drive ambulances for the American Field Service in France in World War I, before the United States had entered the war. Vincent (Scott Sheppard) is a poet, a serious man who will be deeply disillusioned by his experience of both war and love. Rich (Bryant Martin), a football player with dreams of patriotic glory, is less serious about both carnage and the carnal. They expect adventure and a testing of their manhood: it's an old story. Even older a story is that war turns out to be less exciting than horrifying.
The two Americans find two nurses, one English Mary (Lauren Ashley Carter), a sweet girl who's crazy about Rich. Francoise, is a stern and bitter French widow, who has an affair with Vincent. But his love for her remains unreciprocated : "My husband is dead and so am I."
I loved Gentleman Volunteers ten years ago. So what's different that makes it now so much less engaging and exciting?
For one thing, as an anti-war play it seems naïve; the idea that the Americans will wade into Europe and solve everything seems at this particular juncture in these tragic times, hopelessly simpleminded. Further, the original cast was overwhelmingly charming and this cast seems far less engaging; each actor strikes only one note, and there is much cartoonish over-emoting. Very little in the movement or the lighting or the tone evokes the atmosphere of the early twentieth century.
Also, presenting the play "in promenade" (which means that the audience moves around, following the action) is here chaotic and uncomfortable; nobody seems to know where to go and it's too dark with too few benches to sit on, rendering the sightlines difficult.
And, finally, if you're going to showcase mime, it needs to be readable; there are some superb moments, such as when Mary draws eyeglasses on Vincent's face and he uses a finger to push them on up his nose and then we see his eyes snap into focus. But some of the time I simply couldn't tell what they were miming, and because the characters are often far from us or they're speaking French, the show is not always intelligible.
Gentlemen Volunteers is still interesting as a theatrical experiment but not entirely satisfying as a theatrical experience.