Our first mistake was profiling the country's founding fathers as demigods in American history textbooks. Generations grew up believing George Washington was the equivalent of Christ himself — neither did anything wrong, according to the bibles of both church and state. Vietnam veterans learned the hard way that life did not imitate the Gospels, but for every Born on the Fourth of July, there was another patriotic rally that elevated service to the country with service to God. Tom Burmester's electrifying, tight world premiere, the third in the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble's War Cycle series (read Steven Leigh Morris' cover story from last August), not only confronts the error and crushing weight of ascribing immortality to mere men, but also examines the Catch-22 of the fraternity of soldiers. Yes, it's another war play, but the first act moves so swiftly and the themes are presented so seamlessly, you find yourself gasping rather than groaning. Burmester's characters could easily slip into caricature: Eric Anderson's redneck PFC Jackson is a Southern Christian's nightmare, quoting scripture and lecturing another soldier about his porn collection moments before he gleefully joins the terrifying, ritualistic chanting of, "Fuck that bitch!" But they all feel so familiar; you begin to realize these soldier stereotypes are, like all stereotypes, true on some level. Director Danika Sudik (aided by Burmester) controls the pace while allowing for necessary outbursts of the tightly coiled emotion and energy inside each solider, all of which are scary in a primal way. Which is, after all, the point. The army, like all fraternities, encourages herd mentality. It doesn't elevate man; it reduces him to his most animalistic instincts — or so the military hopes, because only when men stop reflecting can they do what must be done to win. The entire ensemble is terrific, but special mention goes to Spencer Kramber's calm-before-cracking sergeant. Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble at the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Aug. 27. (310) 396-3680.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: July 28. Continues through Aug. 27, 2011