Ally Theatre’s production of The War Boys, performing at Joe’s Movement Emporium, tells a story that was written for another time but is very much being lived now as we face a crisis at the border that seems to test our national identity, a president that appears to want to sow discord amongst his populace, and a nation divided in trying to identify what it means to be an American.
The play, written by Naomi Wallace in 1993, reminds us that the struggles of immigration and our borders have always been very much part of the national conversation and story-telling. Frequently, stories are about the melancholy and, often-times, violent process of learning to belong and self-identify. The titular boys in The War Boys take turns sharing personal and disturbing stories of their childhoods, trying to one-up each other with the most traumatizing moments.
Director Matt Ripa, in commenting over the choice for this play: “I was struck by the brutality, the theatricality, the critique of the American system and capitalism. I was struck by how the boys are broken and how they attempt to reconstruct themselves.”
This is a brutal play, with brutal characters struggling to find some, any, kind of positive justification for ugly behavior. The men are in a power struggle with each other. Ripa navigates their ever-changing power dynamic by designating where each beat of the play must take place.
The set (Emily Lotz) is gorgeous with the broken-down bed of a pickup truck on one side juxtaposing a tiny sapling on the other side of a stage filled with sand. The action is framed within a slat wall opening. Partnered with Katie McCreary’s lighting design, the southern border’s nocturnal desert is brought to life in the small theater. These technical elements permitted a full immersion for these characters, with sand that stuck to their bodies and clothing, and their movements across the stage shifting them from shadows into moonlight.
The truck serves as a throne for two men to serve as witness and watchful border guards. Each man’s monologue takes place space next to the sapling. As they expose and defend their own sins, the pace teeters between the melodramatic and gratuitously disturbing.
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These are focused, energetic performances. The men fight, slap, and tackle each other in brutal and skillfully-staged physical altercations. The fight choreography is carefully curated by Chris Niebling, and made all the more impressive as these movements happen on a surface of loose sand.
David, (Eli Pendry,) operates the as the leader-apparent, the liberal-arts taught suburbanite casting a manipulative shadow over the other two men. Pendry performs David with the right level of white guilt and emotionally unattached reasoning. He is self-assured in his way of viewing the ugliness of the world: “You see, people like me… we don’t call them b**ners… we call them illegal aliens…” while deliberately ignoring the anguish he causes his friends and families.
The War Boys closes August 31, 2019. Details and tickets
Robert Pike as George, the mild stereotype of the American “home-boy,” delivers the most energetic performance. His struggle to separate whether he’s being manipulated or abused by the other two characters, is wonderfully interpreted and beautifully portrayed. Pike finds a genuine connection to the only character potentially worthy of a redeeming arc.
Rounding out the group is Greg (Jhonny Maldonado,) the Mexican-American man who struggles as the archetype for the border. Greg vacillates between his feelings as part of both nationalities, trying to define himself while growing up in a fraught multi-cultural environment. Maldonado’s performance is solid against his co-stars, although the emotional weight of his performances falls a little short during more dramatic moments.
This is a play with hard and disturbing language, with scenes describing rape and and violent interactions between the men. The production team has set themselves up to be emotionally available to audiences before and after the production, including a number of talk-back events. The company clearly values the importance of Wallace’s play within the context of the times, and have gracefully delivered a worthy story from the U.S. side of the border.
The War Boys by Naomi Wallace . Directed by Matt Ripa. Cast: Robert Pike, Jhonny Maldonado, and Eli Pendry . Set Design by Emily Lotz. Lighting design by Katie McCreary. Sound design by Niusha Nawab. Fight and intimacy choreography by Chris Niebling. Production manager is Alex Davis. Costume design by Julia Cray Leong. Set construction by Robert Hamilton. Stage management by Aletha Saunders.Produced by Ally Theatre Company . Reviewed by Julian Oquendo.