A World War I story for today

Pig Iron's 'Gentlemen Volunteers'

3 minute read
"Ambassadors of good feeling and good old-fashioned elbow grease." (Photo by Lindsay Browning Photography)
"Ambassadors of good feeling and good old-fashioned elbow grease." (Photo by Lindsay Browning Photography)

The 17 years since Pig Iron Theatre Company premiered Gentlemen Volunteers has brought us several wars, which seem to be spawning more wars. The prospect of volunteering to fight the enemy "over there" so we don't have to fight them "over here" hasn't changed in a century, though the enthusiasm expressed by two Yale students seems quaint, as well as unlikely, today.

In director Dan Rothenberg's restaging of this lauded work, Scott Sheppard and Bryant Martin play the young men who join the American Field Service to work as ambulance drivers in war-torn France: "ambassadors of good feeling and good old-fashioned elbow grease." Melissa Krodman plays a steely administrative nurse, and Lauren Ashley Carter is a bright-eyed British volunteer. Michael Castillejos is billed as the One-Man Band or L'Homme d'Orchestre, and is also the Foley artist, creating live sounds through low-tech means.

The audience plays a variety of roles in this "promenade" staging. Without fixed seating, we're moved about by the cast, who treat us as fellow recruits, herding us along train platforms and into bars established through words and gestures, motivating us to take new positions. It's a great way to move us around without treating us like a herd of students in a museum. Don't worry, we do get to sit sometimes, on benches, risers, and the floor.

The story feels familiar — young men and women encounter war's realities and fall in love, then war complicates their happiness — but, acted earnestly, the characters' journeys are real and affecting.

The staging's the thing

On top of that, however, the actors are also physical storytellers, which is what really makes this (and many other) Pig Iron productions special. The actors play multiple roles, control the deceptively simple lighting instruments, and move expertly through the space in order to frame themselves perfectly in that light — and still do more.

The play's best scenes include silent actors who draws pictures and boundaries for us in the air and use pantomime to amplify the scenes' emotions. For example, when Sheppard's Victor and Krodman's Francoise meet in a bar, Carter moves around and between them, drawing an invisible line from Victor's eyes to Francoise's or miming Francoise's suddenly racing heartbeat. In some scenes, Victor's (invisible) glasses are outlined on his face for us, reminding us of his bookish background. It's a simple, humorous, and gracefully beautiful technique, turning scenes into delicate dances.

This inventiveness they share takes nothing away from their shock at war's horrors and the play's darker themes. Pantomimed surgery scenes — "we work between life and death here," Francoise curtly explains — are appropriately sobering.

The pop song "Everybody's Doing It" starts the show jauntily but ends it with bitter irony. The whole journey takes only 75 minutes but creates a vivid world in a bare space, for which the Christ Church Neighborhood House's brick walls seem ideal (it's also where Pig Iron premiered Gentlemen Volunteers in 1998).

It might seem an unlikely choice for the holiday season, but don't wait another 17 years to see Gentlemen Volunteers.

What, When, Where

Gentlemen Volunteers by Suli Holum and Pig Iron. Dan Rothenberg directed. Through Dec. 27. Pig Iron Theatre Company at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American St., Philadelphia. 215-425-1100 or pigiron.org.

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