Let’s say you want to tell a gripping, “ripped from today’s headlines” war story—and you’re operating on a tight budget. You can spend $11,000,000 as Kathryn Bigelow did for The Hurt Locker (and that’s cheap for a Hollywood flick).  Or how about this for a suggestion?  For maybe one-tenth of one percent of that budget, you can produce The War Cycle: Gospel According to First Squad, currently generating equivalent sparks at The Powerhouse Theatre. Talk about a no-brainer!

The latest smash hit from the much lauded young thespians who call themselves the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, Tom Burmester’s dramatic two-acter transports its audience smack dab into the trenches of the war in Afghanistan as a military investigation attempts to unravel exactly what transpired in a bloody skirmish on a hillside near Yakha Chen in the Korengal Valley, aka “The Valley Of Death” for good reason.

Moving back and forth in time from the current investigation to events leading up to the bloody battle, Gospel introduces us to the eclectic bunch of soldiers who make up First Squad: PFC Gehrman, aka Trouper (Andrew Crabtree), a big-muscled tough guy who brags about getting “so many booty calls, I crash the network”; PFC Raasch, aka Jedi (Michael John Pappas), whose air of intelligence and intellect make him stand out like a sore thumb amongst the roughnecks of First Squad; PFC Giri aka Doc (Josef Malonzo), a nice guy type who survives by not making waves; PFC Wright (Joe Mahon), who met and married a Vegas stripper just two weeks before deployment and is about to get his heart stomped on; PFC Jackson (Michael Hanson), the Bible-toting, Scripture-quoting fundamentalist Christian of the squad; and SGT Taylor (Jonathan Redding), whose divorce (and the resulting loss of contact with his young daughter) can probably be blamed on his choice of career. In addition there’s Muhammad (AJ Meijer), the squad’s Afghan interpreter, whose dreams of escaping the horrors of war for The American Dream may just be about to come true.

Then into the First Squad’s midst comes PFC Gabriel (Trevor Algatt), a “fobbit” (a soldier who never leaves the safety of his base) whose sudden arrival only a week before the squad is to be sent home seems nigh-on inexplicable, and whose duffel bag filled with pocket Bibles translated into Pashto could well spell trouble in a country where the mere possession of anything other than The Quran dooms an Afghan to death.

Gospel According To First Squad’s thoroughly engrossing ninety-minute Act One details the events leading up to the gory clash of Act Two’s edge-of-your- seat half hour, making for as gripping an evening of theater you’re likely to have all year.

Fortunately, playwright Burmester knows just when to provide a moment of comic relief, as when playboy Gehrman philosophizes, “Just because you fuck them, doesn’t mean you have to marry them. Women’s lib, bro.” Not surprisingly, humor can get pretty dark at times, as when a pre-approved credit card offer arrives for a fallen comrade, prompting one of the soldiers to suggest that since “they don’t know he’s dead, we could max it out.”

Mostly though, it’s horny, foul-mouthed young grunts having to deal with the tough realities of military life in the desert trenches, in a war some of them believe in with a rabid anti-terrorist fervor that translates into fanatical Islamophobia, while others see this “War On Terror” as a pointless mess we can’t seem to get ourselves out of.

As I watched First Squad, I couldn’t help wondering how a Private Jackson would react were he a member of the audience. Would he see himself as heroic? This reviewer couldn’t help noticing how much more violent Jackson’s version of Christianity seems compared to the Quran and Sharia law as Muhammed describes them.

Also, on a personal note, Gospel According To First Squad got me wondering how, even with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, any gay soldier could possibly feel at ease being out in the military, given the rampant homophobia expressed by First Squad members throughout Gospel. As this play would have it, the Army is no place to be gay.

If it’s not already clear, Gospel According To First Squadron will give you plenty of food for conversation and thought, at intermission, following the performance, and quite possibly for days after.

Under Danika Sudik and Burmester’s exhilarating, razor-sharp direction, the entire cast deliver performances so authentic it seems scarcely plausible that these are university trained actors and not honest-to-goodness soldiers who’ve been shipped to Santa Monica for “drama duty” at the Powerhouse.

Spencer Kramber (CPT Davis) and understudy Eric Carlson (LT Grieshop) are excellent in supporting roles. As for the eight leads, Algatt, Crabtree,  Hanson, Mahon,  Malonzo, Meijer, Pappas, and Redding are all so out-and-out brilliant (i.e. dynamic, intense, and indefatigable) that it would be unfair to single one out. That being said, it must be mentioned that Hanson, who usually plays Grieshop, deserves major props for covering not only Jackson, a part he nailed last night with the fervor of an actual Bible-thumper, but also Gehrman and Mahon, all three of which he has gone on as. (All this from the boy-next-door charmer of Group: A Musical. Talk about versatility and cojones.)

Burmester’s set design is simple, stark, and highly effective, the walls of the powerhouse painted pixilated black-and-white guerilla camo, cots, tables, and other props brought onstage and removed during scene changes with military precision. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is a powerful mix of faultlessly selected songs and realistic battle sounds. Soheil e Najafi lights Burmester’s set and costumes with dramatic flair. Max Oken is stage manager. Gospel According To First Squad is produced by Burmester, Caroline Sharp, and Sudik.

The War Cycle: Gospel According to First Squad is a play that deserves a transfer to a bigger theater and a bigger-bucks production with the entire cast and creative team intact. In the meantime, Gospel’s initial run has been extended through September 23 with all performances offered on a Pay What You Can basis—leaving you absolutely no excuse not to catch this thrilling evening of L.A. theater at its best and most cutting-edge.

Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
September 8, 2011

Photos: Rafael Tongol

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