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Monday, November 11, 2002

'Letters From 'Nam' delivers that war's timely message

By JOE ADCOCK
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER THEATER CRITIC

"One Red Flower: Letters From 'Nam" is a new show playing at the Village Theatre in Issaquah. It is pertinent and poignant. It is made up mostly of music, but it's not exactly a musical. More, it's a revue with characters and a theme.

THEATER REVIEW

ONE RED FLOWER: LETTERS FROM 'NAM

CREATOR: Paris Barclay

WHERE: Village Theatre First Stage, 120 Front St. N., Issaquah

WHEN: Through Nov. 17

TICKETS: $16-$20, half-price a half hour before curtain, discounts for groups of 10 or more; 425-392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org

Most of the characters are U.S. infantrymen in the Vietnam War. The theme is a reminder that war is people killing people. Though they may be disposed of thoughtlessly, the killers and the killed are not essentially disposable.

The poignancy of "One Red Flower" comes from human detail. The soldiers are seen together and individually. At one time or another, they are enthusiastic, devastated, horny, bitter, rowdy, angry, happy, hopeful and distraught. Then they die young -- some of them.

If there is anything like a plot in "One Red Flower," it has to do with questions: "Who will die? Who will die next? Who will survive? In what condition?"

The pertinence of "One Red Flower" is, of course, its meditation on an old U.S. war at a time when the United States is contemplating a new war. The focus is not on political strategizing, polls or propaganda. Occupying center stage is inevitable reality. Young men kill young men and hapless civilians.

"One Red Flower" is the work of Paris Barclay, a Hollywood writer, director, composer and lyricist who is best known for his direction of "ER," "NYPD Blue" and "The West Wing." Barclay took his inspiration for "One Red Flower" from "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam," an anthology of writings by American soldiers. Some of the lyrics are taken directly from letters; others are Barclay's adaptations of the soldiers' words.

Barclay's songs, with a couple of exceptions, have utilitarian melodies. The lyrics are sometimes insubstantial and repetitious. The exceptional songs are explosive numbers in which lust, high spirits or anger propels intensity.

Barclay and director Ron OJ Parson have assembled an excellent cast. Six men and one woman create vivid portraits. Singing, dancing and acting all help in the depiction of details. Like all war stories, "One Red Flower" features characters whose differences provide sparks and whose bonding provides emotion.

Robbie Swift, as a company clerk who volunteers for combat duty, creates the show's highest high point in a wild evocation of the joys of marijuana. As a gung-ho soldier from the South, Levi Kreis gives an impassioned sense of a fighter who is desperate to believe in what he is fighting for. In a much lighter mood, Kreis is funny as a grunt in love with a prostitute.

As a prisoner demoralized into suicidal depression, Josh Keaton traces a soldier's emotional demise. T.E. Russell plays a lieutenant who juggles personal ambition, loyalty to his men and existential despair. The necessary antiwar stance is taken by Kevin Noonchester. He plays a medic who can find no justification whatever for the day-after-day waking nightmare that his life becomes. Noonchester gives distance and balance -- and he has a beautiful voice.

The shakiest element of "One Red Flower" is its purported centerpiece, the relationship between a helicopter pilot captain and his mother. Marta DuBois plays the mother, who comes off as a generic white, middle-class American woman to whom things happen.

As the son, David Burnham is attractive in an underwear-model way. He acts, sings and dances with such ferocity that he becomes detached from his character and his character's relationships. What with the languid body displays and the fierce emoting, poignancy is diminished rather than fostered.

This Village Theatre production of "One Red Flower" is what is called a "workshop production." Barclay is tinkering with the show, figuring out what works and what doesn't work. Even in an unfinished state, it is clear that "One Red Flower" functions best as a powerful and multifaceted meditation on war. And it doesn't work at all as a showcase for a charismatic star.

P-I theater critic Joe Adcock can be reached at 206-448-8369 or joeadcock@seattlepi.com.

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