Review: Then and now, ‘Gentlemen Volunteers’

 Bryant Martin in Pig Iron Theatre Company's 'Gentlemen Volunteers.' (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Browning Photography)

Bryant Martin in Pig Iron Theatre Company's 'Gentlemen Volunteers.' (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Browning Photography)

Pig Iron Theatre Company is celebrating 20 years of bold and unconventional work by restaging an early piece that created a buzz here, then nationally and at the mother of Fringe Festivals in Scotland. “Gentlemen Volunteers” is about young American men who signed with the Red Cross, 100 years ago, to go to Europe as ambulance drivers and pick up wounded Allied soldiers in the battles that would become World War I.

Pig Iron’s co-founders and early actors – newly minted Swarthmore grads who’re now career theater artists here and elsewhere – devised the show. One of them, Solveig Holum, now called Suli, wrote text to bind the miming, music and sound effects that take up much of its 70 minutes. “Gentlemen Volunteers” had the inventive touches of a show that makes Pig Iron tough to pigeon-hole: various intertwined performances styles and challenges. In this one, audiences walked from scene to scene around the basement of the West Philly church where it was staged in 1998. In one part of the room, they were at Yale with the two guys who would become Red Cross volunteers. In another, they were at a French taproom, or an apartment, or anywhere it took to tell this story of American boys falling in love with French nurses amid chaos.

I wish I had seen it, given its cast and the reputation it gained. The revival, which opened Friday night in the theater space at Christ Church Neighborhood House, had the feel of an old hat. We’re more attuned today to plays set in special sites or demanding some form of audience participation, thanks to Pig Iron and other companies like it, and we also easily understand “devised theater” — a production whose life begins as an idea without a script, and along the way to opening night blossoms into theater.

My thought throughout “Gentlemen Volunteers” was, why do we need to promenade around this room for this particular play? What does it add? The show is done with little scenery and almost in shadow, with actors often pulling a string to turn on or off an overhead light that begins or ends a scene. They could do that on any stage as we watch from stationary seats.

About the rest of it, I’m indifferent – “Gentlemen Volunteers” is neither memorable nor dismissable, just a good story done in clever fashion. For all its actual bells and whistles it seems to have no figurative ones. When the five cast members aren’t under the lights, they’re off to the side operating old-time radio foley-type sound effects. Some of the play is in French, most not. (If you don’t understand French, particularly the excellent French offered by Melissa Krodman as both a chanteuse and a nurse, it doesn’t matter.) A lot of the play is in mime, and it’s my guess the mime is not as effective as in the original – it took me a while to figure out that some pantomimes were setting the scene of a room, and that sometimes actors played the emotional reactions of other characters or silently prodded them into action.

Michael Castillejos is an effective one-man-band accompanying the action on several instruments and sometimes in song. Director Dan Rothenberg’s production (he also staged the original) mixes its styles to varied outcomes; some pantomime scenes become complicated and cry out for text, and one scene toward the end that telegraphs trouble between two lovers and is a poignant hinge to the play turns vexingly melodramatic – it made me wonder whether this was all supposed to be a live version of a cartoon. The rest of the cast – Laurent Ashley Carter, Bryant Martin and Scott Sheppard – are, like Krodman and Castillejos, uniformly fine. But as an ensemble, they don’t make us empathetic to their war-time predicaments. Instead of feeling this play, we simply look on as wandering observers.

“Gentlemen Volunteers,” produced by Pig Iron Theatre Company, runs through Dec. 27 at the theater on the fourth floor of Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., behind Christ Church on Second Street above Market.

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