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Infantry Monologues

I get to become the thing that scares them,
so I can kill the thing that terrifies them.

---the suspect in "Coyote Way"

An allegorical time line of America's political climate in the past decade, Meat & Potato Theatre's Infantry Monologues actually contains no infantrymen. There is a soldier, in the form of a sergeant; but no grunts make the stage in this intriguing and thought-provoking series of one-acts.

Writer Toby Atkinson has stated that the title emerges from his own experiences as an infantryman in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2004. It's during this time that he saw our nation's culture quickly veering away from the principles he had sworn to defend. Concerned, he wrote the vignettes with each play reflecting his evolving and changing viewpoints about America and its "War on Terror."

The first piece "Coyote Way" is pre-2001, "Use of Force" is 9/11-esque and the final play "2CC" is post-September 11th. Each act is a one-person performance and looks at how violence is wielded and rationalized during times of threat. The plays also examine how ordinary people face situations that shake their world views and cause them to step into purposeful action.

As director, Mr. Atkinson has developed a flowing production that easily melds the three acts. The plays move quickly and the cast hits a high point in each act. Moving between characterizations, their various impersonations of the people within their worlds is at times quite funny and other times frightening. The minimal staging -- table, chair, army cots, foot lockers, etc. -- allows the scene changes to be made quickly and efficiently in Playbill Cafe's tiny blackbox space. While the extended five minute pauses between acts allow the audience to digest the performance they've just seen.

Robert Ross' lighting design is most interesting during the military court tribunal of "2CC" with the fading in and out of light marking the passing time and changing questions of the interrogation. Megan Mai Swanson creates a believable aura with her costume designs. The unnamed protagonist in "Coyote Way" is dressed in basic jeans and jacket, however his bloody clothes and bandages belie his mediocre exterior. The female sergeant in "Use of Force" is outfitted in army fatigues, which juxtaposes her attempts to maintain her femininity throughout her tour of duty. And the prisoner in "2CC," a soldier in what has literally become "God's army," is garbed in an unknown military uniform.

In the first act, seemingly set in the mid-to late-nineties, Mr. Atkinson is a man being questioned by a Canadian Mountie for a gruesome killing. It soon turns out the killing is being perpetrated by a serial killer and Mr. Atkinson's character fits the bill with his blood soaked clothes. However, this former public defender is also interested in finding the killer, for his unknown client who has hired him to execute the murderer and stop the slayings. The Raymond Chandler-like writing takes an interesting turn into Night Stalker-Buffy The Vampire Slayer territory -- but from the point of view of a former non-believer. It's not until the end of the ghost tale that you know if the man is telling the truth or simply trying to get back out onto the streets to perform another macabre mutilation. This piece corresponds to the patriotism and sense of "fighting the good fight" that Tobin Atkinson experienced prior to enlisting in the armed forces. As an actor, Mr. Atkinson creates an engaging everyman as he weaves a seemingly fanciful Native American spirituality tale that becomes seriously grounded in reality.

As Olivia Valorosa, a combat medic in Iraq, Jenny Crooks brings a casualness to "Use of Force" that belies its life or death seriousness. Fresh from a shower, she prepares to go out on watch and chats with her best friend and tent mate, Sergeant Archer. Drying her hair, applying lotion to her arms, Ms. Crooks explains how she, a Guatemalan illegal immigrant, has come to be a part of America's "peace keeping" force. Olivia, who so wanted to be a U.S. citizen, is now sickened by the government she has sworn to protect. As she continues the monologue, you realize her bunk mate is incapacitated -- a victim of a rape by a senior officer. And Sergeant Valorosa has become a vigilante in an attempt to protect her best friend. Ms. Crooks provides a heartfelt performance of a woman who finds herself in a desperate situation, forced to engage in a battle she never envisioned even when she agreed to go to war. "Use of Force" mimics the point that the United States found itself on September 11th. Interestingly, all the characters and situations in the piece are based upon real life incidents.

In the final performance of the show, Parker Dixon is Joshua Larkin, a military member in not-so-distant America, who is facing a court-martial for helping a group of prisoners escape their internment camp. The camp is set in the Utah desert and is one of many across the country housing United States nationals These men, women and children have been imprisoned because they are atheists, non-monotheist worshippers, gay or other people viewed as "2CC" (2nd Class Citizens). Having been raised in a theocracy, Larkin is trained to unquestioningly follow authority until he meets the members of the prison camp. Part soldier, part missionary, Joshua decides he can help the unfortunate denizens of Emerald's Detention Center best experience the Lord by helping them plant a garden and bringing them in touch with God's natural splendors. As he explains why he ultimately assisted them in their escape, he fills the audience in on how the U.S. moved from being a "land of the free" to a "land of the free -- for some." Mr. Dixon's performance moves from the wide-eyed Larkin, to the sadistic prison camp leader and then to the enraged inmates almost seamlessly. The piece is designed to make you examine the Patriot Act and the power the Religious Right is exerting in conservative politics.

Meat & Potato Theatre provides a stirring performance to examine our own -- as well as our nation's -- principles during this Independence Day month. Its points are heightened by Playbill Café's tiny space and the actors' humorous, yet touching, portrayals. It's a terrific introduction to a new company's potential and direction.

Infantry Monologues
Written and Directed by Tobin Atkinson
with Tobin Atkinson, Jenny Crooks, Parker Dixon
Sound Design: Michael E. Moon
Lighting Design: Robert Ross
Costume Design: Megan Mai Swanson
Running Time: 2 hours and with two intermissions
A production of Meat & Potato Theatre or
Playbill Café, 1409 14th Street NW, Washington, DC
Telephone: 703-587-5730
TUE - SUN @7:30, SUN @2; $12-$15
Opening 07/07/05, closing 07/24/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 07/12/05 performance
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