Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din Declares War on War Movies

01/30/2012 8:00 AM |

Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din
Created by Van Cougar
Directed by Mark Sitko

The structural conceit of Van Cougar's Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din (at the Bushwick Starr through February 11) makes intuitive sense: articulate personal trauma while subverting collective catharsis by juxtaposing the experiences related by U.S. veterans with the portrayal of American soldiers in war movies. Most scenes meld excerpts from the creators' interviews with veterans and the actions (and some dialogue) from films like Apocalypse Now, Patton and Saving Private Ryan. All the action takes place in a perfectly run-down and generic VFW post—designed by Chris Morris—where a bartender warns us early on that with soldiers' stories, "there's a lot of embellishment." But the veterans' stories are incredibly frank and mostly combat-free, while their big-screen hardships and heroics are elaborately embellished. The juxtapositions make for some compelling (and at times uncomfortably funny) mashups, but the pantomimed movie scenes sometimes detract from soldiers' monologues that would be even more powerful delivered without the elaborate choreography.

Happily, the cast is uniformly excellent, equally strong with the suddenly-comic dramatic over-reaching of war movies, their physically arduous action and training sequences, and the very genuine and subdued veteran interview excerpts. The Starr is well-equipped for the play's shifting tones, its massive sound system rattling viewers and performers to the bone in battle scenes but also providing appropriately intimate conditions for the most confessional stories. As in their previous movie-referencing production here, Rocky Philly, Van Cougar inverses many characters' gender, which further underlines the machismo of military culture—especially on screen.

But the fictional and factual accounts of war also occasionally overlap in unproductive ways, with soldiers' stories being lost in the din of battle or made unintelligible by interjecting movie dialogue. The meshing of sources is most successful when it's made incredibly overt: such as an exchange between Samuel Traylor-West and Danny Bret Krueger as they re-enact the climactic Russian roulette scene from Deer Hunter; or, when a veteran relates his story as he and his colleagues cheer the troops in Apocalypse Now, while its iconic helicopter attack scene is projected on the theater wall. The simplest scenes are Gunga Din's most effective, though, and the best among these is Eliza Bent's terrific monologue about an officer ignoring protocol because he knew he was right. Unfortunately this scene doesn't close the production, which is overlong at about two hours with no intermission. More importantly that passage, taken from an interview with an Air Force General, epitomizes what's best about Gunga Din: its capacity to convey the empathy and fallibility of an institution typically portrayed as heroic and considered affectless. Like the Rudyard Kipling poem of its title, Gunga Din finds understanding and communion where conventionally—and in pop culture—there is only conflict.

(Photo: Jeremy Baron)