Whether your politics are to the right of Donald Rumsfeld or far left of Cindy Sheehan, you may appreciate Aaron Kozak's The Birthday Boys equally. In two acts spanning less than twenty-four hours, it portrays a horrible experience that strengthens the bond between three Marine grunts taken captive by Mahdi Militia in Iraq, one that teaches them about fear, resilience, courage and honor at personal and monumental levels. The performance draws the audience in so intimately, it's as if they spend the twenty-four uncomfortable, frightening hours, too, bound and blindfolded on the floor of an isolated warehouse, wondering when/ if death will come and in what form. Very easy to see how this play took the 2010 LA Fringe Festival by storm, winning the Fringe First Award for Best World Premiere and the LA Fringe Critics' Choice Award. It's on its way to New York, stopping off to celebrate Memorial Day weekend in limited run as the inaugural stage production at the re-born, refurbished historic Texas Theatre in Dallas' vibrant Oak Cliff neighborhood. May 26-29. If you missed it here, catch it in New York.
How would you handle being held hostage by terrorists? Every day a young American service person spends in the Middle East, it has to lurk in the back of his/her mind: what if I'm caught? How will I act? What will it feel like? Will they torture me? Will I crack? Will anyone ever rescue me? In this play's case, two Marines share birthdays as hostages (age 22 and 23), hence the play's title; the third Marine is age 28, considered "old" by the other two. One of them speaks a smattering of bad high school Spanish; none speak any Arabic tongue. Without sounding like a John Wayne propaganda piece, Kozak's play defines the characters of all three vividly as soldiers and as young people coping with a very bad situation. Kozak embraces the technique of revealing his characters through the stories they tell about other people. Most of the time, there are only three actors on stage; but the play's reality resonates with grandmothers who send foolish gifts and disapproving fathers and devoted wives and tales of Mandy the mail clerk who "does sex so well." The three main characters remain trussed up and blindfolded throughout both acts (and lie inert on stage through intermission). Yet, their performances crackle with physical energy and suspense, humor and pathos, fear and anxiety. It proves the point that a play doesn't require lots of hyper-activity and high dollar technical gimmicks and effects to hold its audience's attention. It needs a solid script with interesting characters, a strong director who understands and respects the script's truths, and good actors. The Birthday Boys possesses all three. The ensemble of James Ryen, Trevor St. John David and Nando Betancur as the captured Marines play the fine balance between the dark humor of the work and its underlying serious themes with ease and elegance. As natural and realistic as their performances are, they honor the well-defined artistic tempo and organic rhythms of the work like a trio of classical musicians. Ali Saam as the Mahdi militia leader interjects the cold-blooded terror of a cat toying with a mouse to the play's ambience, playing a swaggering, smirking, genteel sort of interrogator, one who feels no compunction about shoving a rifle barrel into one Marine's mouth to get his attention. Tension builds to a satisfying, intense climax. Unexpected, to say the least, and one I won't spoil by sharing. See it for yourself. Laughing and crying come easy with this script; get to know and care about these young characters as they sort themselves out and find inner strength they never dreamed they had. And brace yourself for the finale. It's what makes those of us who adore live theatre feel addicted to it.
Kudos to the Texas Theatre for incorporating live theatre into their array of entertaining offerings. Surely the sound challenges that exist, muddying some of the play's dialogue, will find remedy by the next production.
The Birthday Boys is dedicated to Aaron Kozak's grandfather William Bonner, who won a Purple Heart in WWII, wounded in the Battle of Peleliu.
A history of the production:
In its southwest regional premiere, The Birthday Boys re-inaugurates The Texas Theatre as a live theatre venue May 26 through 29, 2011.
TICKETS AND INFO:
The Texas Theatre 231 W. Jefferson Blvd Oak Cliff, TX 75208 Box office: (214) 948-1546 Fax: (214) 948-1525
Photo by Brian Plummer: Nando Betancour, James Ryen, Trevor David