World War I—the “Great War,” the “war to end all wars”—became, in retrospect, the great proof of war’s waste, horror and futility. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and movies such as “La Grande Illusion,” “Paths of Glory” and “Gallipoli” familiarized later generations with the terrors and misery of trench warfare, as well as the arrogance of generals and politicians who were willing to sacrifice lives by the thousands to gain a few yards of blasted battlefield soil, all for a hollow and meaningless cause.
Of all the literary accounts of World War I, probably the best-known remains German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a brutally honest reflection on his wartime experiences. One of the great anti-war statements, “All Quiet” deserves respectful treatment at the hands of adapters, especially at a time of general obliviousness to our own forever wars.
Unfortunately, “respectful” is not the word for this dramatization by Matt Foss, who also directs the Red Tape production, presented free of charge at the Greenhouse. In a misguided attempt to juice up the work’s relevance to a contemporary audience, Foss and company have stripped it of its historical specificity and altered its coolly objective tone, the quality that gives it its compelling, damning power.
Some of the problem is in the play’s origin as a college production at the University of Toledo, which presented it last November to mark the centennial of the 1918 armistice. It still feels a bit like a school project, full of good intentions and necessary compromises in terms of casting and staging.
For better or worse, the trenches of the Western Front were a male environment, and the show’s extensive gender-blind casting—which can work very well in other contexts—gives a surreal, alienating feel to a quintessentially realist work of art. The other quirky and anachronistic elements of the production—the trench walls represented by sideways-turned pianos, the 1960s protest-song score, the MTV-like battle scenes, the absence of guns and other weapons on stage—are evidence of an overthought, over-theatrical, postmodernized approach to a text whose unadorned prose already has the impact of a high-explosive shell.
There are a few successful dramatic moments here, as when narrator Paul (a monotonously pensive Elena Victoria Feliz) while on leave encounters a horde of drunken, propaganda-spouting civilian yahoos, who seem to have crawled out of a satirical George Grosz or Otto Dix canvas, and who know nothing and care less about what’s really going on at the front. Also memorable is a discussion within the unit of the deep-down strangeness of war, which involves treating nations as though they were quarreling people even though, as one soldier notes, “a mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France.”
Much of the dialogue and narration is taken verbatim from the book but something is lost in the dramatization. The show fails to convey the sensory and emotional reality of the war: its stench, filth, fear and tedium, as well as the camaraderie and intensity of life lived without expectation of tomorrow. These soldiers seem too clean, too soft, too well-fed, too polite. On the page, the simplest sentences in “All Quiet” have the force of a revelation. Delivered on stage by actors who are obviously and effortfully acting, they just seem like lines. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Red Tape Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 North Lincoln, (773)404-7336, redtapetheatre.org, free. Through September 14.