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Officers’ Mess

Photo by Patricia WilliamsNicholas Kazan’s new play, running at the Odyssey Theater, opens on a set of mud-brick walls, sand bags and ammunition cans — a sure sign that we might be spending the next 90 minutes involved in a story about America’s invasion of Iraq. True enough, it turns out, but before long another kind of déjà vu settles in as we realize that Kazan’s contemporary tale about military occupation has been stretched over the pillars of Greek tragedy — Sophocles’ Antigone, to be exact. And yet, not exactly, for liberties are taken for the sake of narrative flexibility, although not always to clear effect. Annie (Kaitlin Doubleday), an Army private serving in Iraq, sneaks back into her desert bivouac late one night, only to be confronted by another member of her company, Josie (Ali Hillis). Annie confesses to slipping out nightly to bring medicine and food to an Iraqi woman whose young son was shot dead by American soldiers. This kind of fraternization with civilians may score points with Doctors Without Borders but not with the U.S. Army, and Annie soon finds herself called on the carpet by her commanding officer. General Creedon (Clancy Brown) is no ordinary C.O. but her future father-in-law. The general is willing to overlook Annie’s transgressions, but she tells him she will continue to aid the Arab woman and her family — a fanatical resolve (and potential blackmail hand) strengthened by some photographs Annie has secretly taken of the torture of a prisoner in an Abu Ghraib–like detention center. Creedon, wishing to protect his own soldier son, Hammond (Michael Anderson Brown), from a mutinous — and possibly unhinged — woman, issues orders that could sacrifice the lives of both young people. There’s an intriguing topicality to Kazan’s play that makes it virtually irresistible to watch — certainly, we discern the Grecian inevitability to the story’s twists, just as there is to events unfolding today in Washington and Iraq. And, having the source tragedy’s characters trade togas for cammies is a nice challenge, which director Scott Paulin, aided by set designer Victoria Profitt, ably takes on. The show has its problems, however. Not the least of which is the fact that it isn’t a snug fit for Antigone — you can almost hear the parts where the playwright shrugged and gave up trying to maintain the parallels between the two stories. Unlike Princess Antigone, Annie has a bargaining chip — the incriminating photos that reside in her digital camera and elsewhere. Also, we’re not entirely sure by play’s end that Annie will pay the ultimate penalty for her disobedience; she’s sent, improbably enough, into combat with a company of male soldiers, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a capital sentence — especially as it’s not clear that there will even be combat. Perhaps worse, Kazan saps Antigone of its allegorical punch by making it a literal story about Americans in Iraq, instead of a fable that simply suggests that situation. Where Jean Anouilh attacked occupied France during WWII by updating Sophocles’ story into a modern but fictitious setting, Kazan simply uses Antigone as an outline that is useful only as long as it perfectly matches his intentions. (Kazan’s not alone — Luis Alfaro displayed a similar elasticity toward Sophocles in his Electricidad, a cholo retrofit of Electra that recently ran at the Mark Taper Forum.) There are other glitches, mostly minor. Throughout the evening, General Creedon becomes increasingly hostile toward his aide, Colonel Williams (Chris Gardner), although there’s no apparent reason for this, unless it’s because as he’s cast, Williams must be the youngest full bird in the Army. It also doesn’t help that Doubleday’s wispy stage presence makes her character something less than compelling, let alone tragic, playing every moment of confrontation as a breakup scene in a soap opera. Fortunately, Brown brings a seasoned authority to his King Creon role that’s helped by Kazan’s downplaying of Creon’s more villainous traits. Brown’s face, weathered into a stony brutality, is more an example of archaeology than physiognomy. Depending on the director and casting, Antigone can easily become a black-and-white morality play, with Antigone as the principled heroine and Creon, a despised piñata to be bashed and hissed. Here, though, the general is a reasonable man pushed to desperate measures by unreasonable times. Instead of a pitiless tyrant, Brown becomes a generous soldier following orders to their illogical conclusions — a self-image to which many Americans still cling. A GOOD SOLDIER | By NICHOLAS KAZAN | At the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. | Through August 7 | (310) 477-2055

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