Monday, December 9, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Attempting to Save a People Who Do Not Need Saving" (on Cailin Maureen Harrison's Defenders)

attempting to save a people who do not need saving
by Douglas Messerli

Cailin Maureen Harrison Defenders / directed by Reena Dutt at The Broadwater Black Box / the performance I attended was on December 8, 2019

Cailin Maureen Harrison’s play Defenders, directed by Reena Dutt at The Broadwater Black Box in Hollywood, although based on fact, is nearly an absurdist work, revealing perhaps just how absurd things can become in war.
    Fearful that Iceland would come attack of the Nazis, the American military ordered soldiers into that island country. The three figures of this play—Lieutenant Marcus Jansen (Bryan Porter), Sergeant Frank McKinley (Tavis Doucette), and Private Fred LaFleur (Spencer Martin)—are ordered to the island’s northern coast.
      But almost everything that could go wrong does. A powerful storm shipwrecks their vessel, and they are forced with a broken radio and jammed machine gun to take refuge on the smaller, rocky island of Hrisey in a derelict church. They are so fearful that the area may have already infiltrated by Germans, that they almost reject the much-needed help of two locals, Geir Stirdson (John P. Connolly) and his daughter Vigdis Geirdottir (Una Eggerts), who finally are able to convince them that they are friendly, fetching coal for the ancient stove, feeding them, and bringing homemade liquor to comfort the small military unit.

     While McKinley desperately attempts to bring the radio back to life and LaFleur tries again and again to unjam the dead gun, the dynamic leader of the group, Jansen barks out orders and every now and then attempts to scout out the island in search of the enemy, each time returning with more and more serious injuries as he and his loyal second in-command fall into bogs, are whipped apart by the unusually strong winds, and are nearly struck by lightning. All McKinley wants to do is return home, hoping that the evidently wealthy Jansen might eventually take him along into a better financial life.
      Although Geir speaks English, his beautiful daughter speaks mostly Icelandic spiced with an occasional English word (the actress is an Icelander). On top of that LaFleur, obviously from the backwaters of Louisiana, speaks a mix of heavily accented English and Creole. While his seniors pretend to be rational beings, the Private is almost a kind of young mystic, intertwining biblical verses with the Icelandic Eddas, a collection of which has been left behind in the church. It is almost inevitable that he and Vigdis shyly fall in love.
      In short, if this play of meaningless acts did not end so tragically, it might almost be described as a comedy of errors.
     Yet a kind of madness ultimately takes over the mind of Jansen, while a mix of magic and myth spills over from the Icelanders coloring, LaFleur’s already overwrought imagination.
      Iceland, and particularly this small offshore island, has a history of different sets of invaders and pirates, and the stories of the Edda call forth the harsh weather they daily suffer as a kind of protection. Accordingly, they are almost as fearful of the recently arrived American soldiers as the three intruders are of the Nazis, whom they seem imagine behind every rock.
      Accordingly, despite the best intentions of those trapped in this quite ridiculous situation, weapons are brought out, ending in the death of Jansen and the near death of McKinley before an American vessel arrives to save them. Only the innocent LaFleur walks off the island by himself. But we also recognize that he will never be the same again, that the absurd experience where his leaders attempted to save a people who did not need saving, will haunt him the rest of his life.
      The small company which presented this arresting play, Pandelia’s Canary Yellow Company, has created a truly admirable production, with all the actors performing quite brilliantly, and with an arresting set by David Goldstein, appropriate costumes by Shon LeBlank, and excellent sound design by Jesse Mandapat. One might wish that all such small theater Los Angeles companies were so wonderfully professional.
      If Defenders is not precisely a major work of theater drama, it’s certainly a fascinating one, searching out through these long-ago events to balance the impossible-to-believe with a heart-felt spirituality—a need to believe. Every war throughout history has seen such bizarre encounters that only fiction and theater—the representations of our myths—can tell.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2019).

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