Kenny Carnes has bitten off a lot to chew with Pieces of War, the solo play that he wrote and performs at Perishable Theatre (through June 18, 2006). The confusions and horrors of war get talked about and inhabited, and are held up to our faces in a sometimes overwrought, sometimes bluntly artless, but always compelling presentation.
SHOWING AND TELLING: Carnes’s Pieces is a one-man show.
We enter the Perishable black box and face camouflage netting on our right; on our left is a helmet and an American flag folded into a tight triangle, like those presented to the survivors of veterans. The first thing we hear are the words of JFK that Vietnam showed to be easier said than done: “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”
Then we meet several soldiers and war-torn vets. From a nervous-eyed street mutterer cadging change and cigarettes to a stern sergeant loudly commanding frontline troops; from a mournful young man who signs up after his fiancée — wincingly named Innocence — is killed in the World Trade Center towers to an arrogant, war-profiteering CEO, they tell their stories in 65 minutes of rap-like rhymes sometimes as disorienting as war itself.
The rhymes are both a blessing and a curse for this play. When they work best, they intensify and stylize the language like good poetry does, allowing complex observations and feelings we might resist to pierce us like darts. At the worst moments, the form falls into sing-song cadences that pull us out of the play by calling attention to the doggerel (“Some of you may have to pay the death toll, to allow this nation to console and mend her aching soul”). Fortunately, this production has been directed by Bob Jaffe, whose solo Samuel Beckett show, . . . and then you go on, is a performance masterpiece.
Whoever is responsible, this play is a less bumpy ride than Carnes’s earlier version, War, Peace & the Anatomy of Being Human. Mood-jarring characters have been removed, such as a fey peace protester and a chirpy 9/11 pilot flying to his doom. (There’s streaming video from a performance at www.kennycarnes.com.) Even more importantly in the latest revision, conversational rhythms remove the forced marching from most of the lines, with full-blown rap saved for a single knit-capped character.
“The dead are in my head,” declares that broken street person, a vet whose words frame the play before a brief coda. In abrupt contrast to him is the ramrod-straight Sgt. Freeman, who addresses us as new soldiers. Every soldier who tells a war story tells a lie, he says, and those who say nothing tell the truth. They forget because they regret.
Those who follow him nevertheless have a lot to say, some of it quite gruesome: a stream-of-consciousness and sometimes surreal account of a “friendly fire” mortar barrage spares us no gushing trauma. We’re taken back and forth among multiple accounts of that company, eventually getting to know a character they call Bear. No, he’s not a large man, he just carries around a Teddy bear in his duffel bag. By the play’s end we understand its significance and suddenly know more than we thought we did about the soldier.