One of the American poet Randall Jarrell’s (1914-1965) fears was that he would only be remembered for his famous five-line poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” The world has proved him prophetic. Anna Moench has even written an entire play, with five scenes, corresponding to those haunting lines: “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”
A ball turret gunner was a crewmember of a B-17 or B-24 bomber who was literally encased, upside down, for up to 12 hours at a time, in a plexiglas shell, and charged with defending the bomber from fighters attacking below.
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner centers around a character named...Randall! (Mike James) who actually volunteers to serve as a ball turret gunner. Major characters include his mother (Raquel Cion), who wants young Randall to comprehend the futility and hypocrisy of war, and decline to fight; his sister, Susan, who, penniless, rides in boxcars to escape life at home; and Gene, a fellow crew member from Kansas with a good heart and weak stomach. Azhar Khan, who doubles as Gene and Randall’s deadbeat Dad, is the standout actor among this group, with impressive range and conviction.
The 50-minute play may have too-lofty ambitions. The promotional materials for The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner boast that the play transcends “realism and history.” And, according to Ms. Moench’s statement, the play will “further problematize the ongoing conflicts that continue to define our world” and “deconstruct a war narrative.” While the play (once again, in its own promotional material) attempts to draw a parallel with the current war in Iraq, that correspondence is not at all apparent.
It is arguable whether those goals have been, or can be, met, but suffice it to say that The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is a solid, often dream-like, experimental performance piece.
The play explores the reasons why a person--but, in particular, why Randall -- decides to go to war. The imaginative staging includes an extremely talented seven piece “orchestral/rock hybrid ensemble” and interesting choreography that, among other things, attempts to simulate—not always successfully—battle.
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is an entertaining work that needn’t pretend to be more than it is: a story about a young man’s untimely death and the personal forces and dreams that brought it to bear.
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is part of the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC).