Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Black Watch" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

It is said that when good Scots go to Heaven they hear only accordion music: bagpiping is for the other place. The ACT/National Theater of Scotland's co-production of "Black Watch,"  which is in the midst of a brilliant and successful run at the San Francisco Armory, is an unforgettable night of innovative theater which is so good you can endure the bagpiping that fills the room for a long time before the show begins. You don't have to plug the piper. The show will start soon, and when it does you will be enthralled.

This is spectacle as much as drama. It is ostensibly a history of the fabled Black Watch, a unit of the Scottish armed forces since 1739, with an emphasis on its problematic service in Iraq during the American invasion of Fallujah. These men consider themselves heirs to the tradition of Scottish highland warriors (think Mel Gibson in "Braveheart"). Their speech is misogynistic and potty-mouthed, but we see the fear under their bravado. Nothing in their training has prepared them for suicide bombers. The nobility of hand-to-hand combat is from another age.

In an all-male ensemble cast a few roles stand out: Stuart Martin as Cammy is the one who seems to be thinking things through a little more clearly; Richard Rankin is tough but understands his men; and Stephen McCole is the commanding officer who also plays the legendary Lord Elgin.

The production team is superb. This is a show that has played around the world and learned the craft of putting on a production of this magnitude. Lights, music (these soldiers drill and also sing and dance a little bit), set and costumes all contribute to the excitement. 

Do not expect personal growth. Little is learned by these men. Most discouraging is that the same is true for the governments who have sent them into combat. Scots, Americans and English soldiers are hostage to election year politics. Thrust into the most hostile of theaters of war, the fabled Black Watch can do little but try to survive.

RATINGS:  ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater blog Awards Division awards "Black Watch" Four Stars. It is exciting as well as novel. But writing about this show misses the point. You must see it. Do so quickly before it ships out for its next deployment.

"Black Watch"
San Francisco Armory
1800 Mission Street, San Francisco
(between 14th and 15th Streets)
Through June 16 ONLY

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