It seems that the Iraq War is all too easily contained within the glaring screens and inked pages of news media today. It has become easy to observe as an audience member, to appreciate from a distance, and to argue about over coffee. We can stick a yellow ribbon magnet to the SUV and leave the war to tomorrow’s newspaper. Of course, many don’t share this perspective, but it is prevalent enough that, thus far, few efforts to humanize the war through art successfully engage a wide audience. EP Theater’s production of “By Obit,” however, largely surmounts this obstacle with a surprisingly fresh and dirty take on a media-saturated topic. Director Michael Pieper writes, “War has been part of this world since the beginning of time.” Well, the time is ripe for a show that enraptures an audience alienated by an age of apathy in a nation divided along red and blue lines; “By Obit” invites us into the barracks and lives of ‘our troops.’
With a vivid script by Timothy McCain, the play takes a raw look at the day-to-day lives of a motley group of men and women stationed just outside of Baghdad, and follows a handful of them back home to deal with the fallout. “By Obit” is a far cry from the broad-shouldered nationalism of the “Les Miserables” barricade: we can seldom hear these people sing, for this play is decidedly, even violently, un-romantic in its view of war. F-bombs are dropped with abandon while ground-shaking combat scenes are few and far between.
It is each character’s uncensored view of the world that lends the play its power. At first the scope is unfocused, but a few figures eventually come to the forefront over the course of the plot, though it takes almost until intermission to realize whom this story is really about. Derek Ryan gives an especially vivid performance as Crosby, delivering a tour-de-force monologue in the second act that enraptures the audience in the sanguine horror of being a flawed human being in a world that seems devoid of right and wrong. Garrett Pregean plays Boone, the leader of the group and the hero of the play. Boone’s story highlights the vastness that lies between the world of the war and the one in which we all live. It becomes apparent that it’s nearly impossible to be truly at home in both.
There is a video-log of sorts that is projected onto one of the stucco walls of the theater in between scenes–the tapes that Benny, an 18-year-old soldier played by Abel Castro, sends to his family. He holds the camera himself and speaks about the heat, the food, and the military legacy that he’s upholding as a third-generation soldier. Benny’s videos give us what we know is a censored account, as the barracks have a parent-censorship filter. But we also get an emotional openness and vulnerability that is completely absent in Benny’s compatriots. The other soldiers are hardened products of their harsh situation, and we watch as the fresh meat is thrown into the desert sun.
The EP Theater is a small townhouse in Pilsen, so the theater inside is rather intimate. In the play’s best moments, you are sitting on the next bunk; at others, you notice the chunk of foam that is knocked off of the ‘rock’ stage left. Though audience members and actors alike may find themselves fighting alienation, “By Obit” brings us into this not-so-far away world and then brings us back into the world close at hand. It’s a bumpy ride filled with doubt, bigotry, and loneliness, and just as we begin to draw away, one frustrated character asks another, “Why are we here?” For now, that lies in the response, quick and dirty: “It’s our fucking job.”
“By Obit,” EP Theater, 1820 South Halsted. March 6-April 12, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm (312)850-4299 www.eptheater.com