Like a land mine in Afghanistan, Red Badge Variations explodes onto the stage of the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City. The world premiere of the play written by Melissa Cooper and directed by Kyle Hatley opened the 35th season of the Coterie on Friday night. The play parallels the models of soldiers introduced in Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage. As thought-provoking as Cooper’s new play is, it does not try to take a pro or anti-pro position of the war.
Without ever seeing the characters fire a shot the audience is transported to the Afghanistan desert, amidst the bombs exploding, the gun fire and the reality of death in a war. This feat is acquired by the fabulous set designs of P. Joseph Barnett and Resident Technical Director Scott “Rex” Hobart and mixed with the audio accompaniment of Sound Designer Joseph Concha.
Henry Fleming, played by Jacob Aaron Cullum, is a new arrival in the war torn country. Unaware that he is replacing a soldier killed in battle, he struggles to become accepted in the tight group. The production steps across time into different periods of the 10 month deployment. Cullum does a tremendous job in this highly dramatic role. He has previously been seen in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and as Henry proves that he can take a serious role and make it his own.
Matt Leonard plays Wilson, an angry brut of a soldier who is still trying to accept the death of his friend, the soldier that Henry is replacing. Leonard gives one of the strongest performances of the production. He is able to display intense anger and in the next moment break into what appears to be an impromptu song.
Doc Bird, played by Jake Walker, is a key character in the production. He is the glue that holds the small squad of soldiers together. Walker is superb as he takes the character from a gentle-talking, kind and fun-loving soldier to bits of anger.
Matthew Joseph plays JC, the man who had his plow replaced by an M-16 rifle and Francisco Javier Villegas is Tat, the soldier who believes the only book to read is the bible. Both actors do an exceptional job in their respective roles and add to the power of the production.
This is a play that will give the entire family a different perspective of what war is like. To ensure accuracy in the depiction of modern day warfare, Logan Black was acquired as a military consultant. Black served in the Army from 1996 to 2007 and served in Iraq. Of the production he said, “This story is very close to my own story.”