Pig Iron Theatre Company's anniversary remounting of its 2006 production of Gentlemen Volunteers, which toured the world to acclaim, 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 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), an athlete who 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. An even older story is that war turns out to be less exciting than horrifying.
The Americans find two nurses, one English, sweet Mary (Lauren Ashley Carter), who's crazy about Rich, and one French, Francoise (Melissa Krodman), a stern, bitter widow who has an affair with Vincent. But his love for her is unreciprocated: "My husband is dead and so am I."
I loved Gentleman Volunteers 10 years ago. So what's makes it now so much less engaging and exciting?
For one thing, as an antiwar play it seems naïve; the idea that Americans will wade into Europe and solve everything seems, in these tragic times, hopelessly simplistic. Further, the 2006 cast was utterly charming, while this one seems far less engaging; each actor strikes only one note, and there is much cartoonish over-emoting. Very little in movement or lighting or tone evokes the atmosphere of the early 20th century.
Also, presenting the play "in promenade" (the audience moves around, following the action) is chaotic and uncomfortable; no one 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 must 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 we see his eyes snap into focus. But some of the time I couldn't tell what they were miming, and because the characters are often far away, or 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.
Presented by Pig Iron Theatre Company through Dec. 27 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. Tickets: $20-$30 Information: www.pigiron.org