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Azuka Theatre's East Coast premiere of JC Lee's warplay fires like gunshot: the 70-minute play is fast, loud, and hard-hitting.
Ironically, though the play is set today, its preferred weapon is an ancient Greek sword. Though Lee (who wrote Azuka's 2012 hit Pookie Goes Grenading) coyly names his characters A (Jeff Gorcyca) and P (James Kern), it’s no secret that they represent Achilles and Patroclus from Homer's The Iliad. Knowing a little about them (from the handy lobby display, perhaps) is enlightening, but not required.
In fact, warplay might be an even more intense experience for those who don't know The Iliad. Part of my mind was busy sorting what I've gleaned over the years about the half-god warrior Achilles and his loyal friend (or "friend") Patroclus.
Director Kevin Glaccum's superb production, however, is set in a neglected modern playground (designed by Thom Weaver). On a back fence hang recruitment posters showing a rifle-toting soldier: "Be a Man Among Men," it prods.
Not Greek to me
If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, waging war must be a close second. Lee's play might be set in any place or time where war occurs. Natalia De La Torre's casual contemporary costumes only reveal ancient Greek inspiration when A dons a helmet, shield, and sword; his armor, though, is a denim vest with leather panels.
The issue vexing them is A's insistence on entering the offstage battle (heard ominously via Damien Figueras's booming sound design), which he calls a game. "Your self-imposed responsibility to be great will end you," P insists. A lives a charmed life, treated as special by all around him. "People think about kissing you and giving you things," P says. "You've never had to earn love."
"I'm a hero," A states, as if that's all the explanation needed.
"Sometimes they die," P shoots back. Their conflict is intensely personal, yet raises issues that transcend period and culture about what it means to be a man in society — from a gay perspective.
Their fighting is all the more intense for its intimacy; no one battles as viciously as spouses who know one another's weaknesses. Michael Cosenza's fight choreography makes their physical combat as dynamic and frightening as their emotional clashes. Both actors make all real with great conviction.
The play builds to mythic proportions, not diluting that personal intimacy but heightening it as warplay fulfills The Iliad's powerful ending of Achilles and Patroclus's tale. The River Styx looms large, realized by Weaver in a beautifully simple manner. His set holds several other clever surprises too, while his lighting is subtle yet lush, particularly in the shadows created for night and otherworldly scenes.
In a stunningly effective way, Lee weaves in the 1977 Styx song "Come Sail Away" — an overplayed anthem from my senior year of high school, skewered in a hilarious 1998 South Park episode and generally mocked and reviled today, yet profoundly meaningful for A and P.
One of the great truths about myths is that they continue to relate to human life, even thousands of years after their creation. In warplay, Lee deftly balances a relationship's upheavals with the specter of war. It’s an epic production well worth seeing, whether or not one knows its origins.
What, When, Where
warplay. By JC Lee, Kevin Glaccum directed. Azuka Theatre. Through November 18, 2018, at the Drake's Louis Bluver Theatre, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 563-1100 or azukatheatre.org.
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