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TheatreFIRST Stages Three Acts of War By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Tuesday May 17, 2005

With Making Noise Quietly, TheatreFIRST has something of an oxymoron: a low-key tour de force. Maybe a double oxymoron, considering the title. So many shows try in good faith to make statements about war, or about the social or simply human situation that leads up to it, taking on the subject either directly, or with a great deal of irony. In Making Noise Quietly, British playwright Robert Holman shows what comes out of it, with no big displays of violence, brutality or overwrought emotionalism, and only the driest, most transparent irony. 

And Holman does it in three seemingly unrelated dialogues. These scenes are pieces of complex sophistication, though they’re staged naturally enough. But the impressions build up. We come away with something else than what we came in with, something even a little different from what we experienced during the play. 

The careful show of disparity among characters and how they’re grouped reveal techniques usually associated with realistic novels or film. There are two young men of very different backgrounds who meet in the south English countryside during World War II: a young man inadvertently bringing tragic news to the mother of a former shipmate during the Malvinas (Falklands) War of 1982 and a German woman painting in a forest while an Englishman and a boy look on, three decades after World War II’s end. 

But this is modern theater in its grand sense, even though rendered almost in miniature. It provides a sense of chamber theater, but outdoors in the daylight and finally in the gathering dusk of three landscapes, without the walls that would build irony and resonance from the characters’ words and spare actions. There’s nothing in the expression of the text, nothing in the staging that’s indebted to television or commercial film, something increasingly rare in today’s theater, especially when representing everyday life and conversation. 

The scenes (Holman identifies them as three short plays, a triptych, and co-directors Clive Chafer and Erin Gilley have chosen paintings from the times of each scene that are projected at the start of each) quietly unfold, as the title seems to indicate. 

The first, “Being Friends,” finds a rather quiet Quaker conscientious objecter (David Koppel) working on a farm accosted by an ebullient artist and writer (Noah James Butler) with a novel forthcoming, preface by Edith Sitwell, who’s on a picnic; they stretch out on a grassy hummock by a pond and talk freely about everything, from the war to their sex lives, interrupted by an aerial raid in the distance, the concussion of bombs. When the objecter speaks about why he left the hospital he first did his service in, and of his obsession with a dying German prisoner, possibly tortured, whom he attended, his doubts over his objection to service come up; he’s thinking of enlisting. 

“Don’t get yourself killed, “ says his new friend, the artist, “The War is too real for me; I have a belief in the reality of unconsumated experience.” 

In the second, “Lost,” which follows immediately on the first, Koppel plays a very different part, in school tie and blazer, with a Public School accent, visiting the mother (Sue Trigg) of his former shipmate who was lost in the Malvinas War, only to discover she was unaware of her son’s death and hadn’t heard from him in five years. Trigg expresses the gamut of emotions, from anger to grief, humiliation at this proper young man hearing her complaint and finding her in her humble surroundings, to smiling, eyes half-closed through her tears. There’s an extraordinary sense of rationalizing loss, separation and the tangled, incomplete business of a dysfunctional family’s past with the meaning of the war. 

After a break, the third—and most complicated—piece (directed by Erin Gilley; the first two by Clive Chafer), Making Noise Quietly, unfolds in two scenes in the Black Forest. A German woman (Milissa Carey) seems to have adopted a strange pair: a Cockney soldier (Noah James Butler, in quite a shift from the artist Eric) and a young boy (Dan Marsh) whom he cares for, yet beats and yells at. With great reserves of patience and determination she makes inroads of trust to the kleptomaniacal, grunting and squealing little boy. Back and forth, up and down, this funny menage explores the effects of violence from two wars and the effects of reason and care on those who’ve been brutalized and who brutalize. 

A fine cast and sensitive direction give these scenes a thought-provoking life after the theater. TheatreFIRST presents an admirable performance of Holman’s clear-sighted everyday parables of humanity and the subtle effects of violence--both oblique and straight-forward. These are revealing dialogues, not paradoxical, but embodying every social contradiction, between seemingly mismatched people who have come together somehow through the brutality of war, which takes everything apart. 

TheatreFIRST presents Making Noise Quietly, May 12 to June 5 at Mills College, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. For more information, call 436-5085 or see www.theatrefirst.com.