For a play that is ostensibly about the unstoppable machine of war, about the moral quandaries and mythologizing of its participants and perpetrators, Irondale Ensemble Project's The Great American All-Star Traveling War Machine is an enjoyable, funny romp through several centuries of human history. Too smart to be a blaring critique, the show is a good dramatization of the magazine that inspired it: Lapham’s Quarterly, the first issue of which was entitled “States of War." The magazine included essays from critics living and deceased, and attempted to approach its subject from an objective and detached perspective. Though the Ensemble's approach is all encompassing, their compilation is clearly intended to criticize war. With such a grand scheme, the show can sometimes be an unfocused critique, but overall it is as complex as the emotions that fuel the war machine. The opening sequence features a song and dance that playfully mocks the ways war influences culture. A narrator (an ironically professorial Damen Scranton) gleefully prances and twists an umbrella, announcing a long list of conflicts. Things become less chipper with the mention of the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars. While it is true that the audience is more likely to have strong emotions and personal connections to these more recent wars, the show is founded on a premise that no war is more “meaningful” than another (or, in the words of Mark Twain, “history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”)
From the opener, the play shifts in time—in thematic, rather than chronological leaps—and includes an inspiring speech from General Patton (a fierce, yet playful Patrena Murray, who is astounding in all of her roles), a humorous exchange of telegrams between Kaiser Wilhelm II (Willie) and Tsar Nicholas II (Nicky) on the eve of WWI, Elizabeth I’s speech at Tillary, an AA meeting attended by Kurt Vonnegut, a petulant Nixon and a paternal Kissinger, plus more. Interspersed between the sketches and monologues are American pop songs, highlighting the vast cultural machine of distraction—vital for a nation, but no less disturbing for that.
The emotional jumps in the show require frequent and sudden shifts in tone. From the proud Elizabeth to a young soldier confronting his kill, Patrena Murray embodies these transitions best and thereby demonstrates the layers of man’s reactions to war. The rest of the cast is a multi-talented group of actors who share with their director, Jim Niesen, keen wit, cheekiness, and general ease.
Some sketches are less strong than others, and with such frequent changes in time, place, and perspective, the show can seem disjointed. This style links the show with a cabaret tradition that favors quick laughs over plot and character development. For example, the choppiness and questionable importance of a Rambo sketch and one about Alexander the Great point to some of the problems with covering so much ground. However, because of the skill of the actors, and the director’s trust in their abilities, the production is still compelling.
In addition to their talents as comedians, the cast is quite capable of churning out moving scenes that focus on the tragic losses of war. The most affecting are a piece that integrates the tale of a soldier’s death in WWII with the lyrics of an achingly lovely Australian war song, and an interpretation of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried .
Acknowledging the bravery, and power, required to fuel a war effort does not, however, amount to support, and the ensemble is made up of some conscientious objectors. Yet, the show does a great service to American tradition by exploring various perspectives to interrogate a collective past.
The Great American All-Star Traveling War Machine is a refreshing piece of theater that graciously avoids the easy propaganda of an issue play while still giving serious, if often ironic, consideration to the gravest of topics. Yet, because of the cabaret structure, the play has the unfortunate tendency to rapidly skate over the deep issues it raises. It might not be a wholly saving grace, but the finale is a neat and stunning summary of their ideas: a scene involving no fanfare, no iconography, no idolatry; just some faded jackets representing the emptiness of the endeavor, and a song bitter in its blind hopefulness: “We’ll meet again some day, some sunny day.”