This Is War at Signal Ensemble Theatre: Theater review
Four undersupported Canadian soldiers give after-the-fact accounts of a controversial raid in Kandahar in Hannah Moscovitz's drama, extraordinarily acted in Signal's U.S. premiere.
Hannah Moscovitch's confessional war drama locates four Canadian soldiers in Panjwai, Kandahar, one of the most isolated and critical southern cities in Afghanistan proceeding the 2001 U.S.–led invasion. In 2008, the setting for Signal Ensemble Theatre's disquieting, excellently cast U.S. premiere, the situation became so dire that Prime Minister Stephen Harper laid down an ultimatum to President Bush: contribute at least 1,000 NATO troops to the territory, or lose Canadian support altogether.
For the under-supported soldiers stuck in the Taliban-held quagmire during the impasse, the mission at hand—"peacekeeping"—takes on a particularly Orwellian meaning. Training a foreign army and combatting an insurgency is grimly reduced by a commander to a morally ambiguous overarching task: "If they're dead, then we did our job." Working backward from a controversial raid, a sergeant whose focus and stability is by broken by troubling news from home (Billy Fenderson), a young private on the brink of emotional implosion (Michael Finley), a medical technician and acting voice of reason (Dylan Stuckey), and a master corporal and target of unwanted advances (Courtney Jones) privately give testimony to an unseen reporter.
Moscovitch is just as interested in day-to-day military actions as she is in her climactic revelation, and scenes alternate between confessions and the events relayed in order to highlight each soldier's disparities and omissions. Seeing pressures both on and off the battlefield helps provide context for the seemingly appalling decisions made under the worst of conditions, but like many non-chronological stories, some emotional momentum is lost in the process of piecing plot points together.
Where Moscovitch's structure drops the visceral impact her story calls for, though, Ronan Marra's production and first-rate ensemble pick it up and aim it right between the eyes. Finley, a current Northwestern undergrad who recently debuted professionally in Shade Murray's brilliant A Red Orchid production of The Aliens, is particularly haunting as a 20-year-old in over his head. For that matter, so is the entire quartet: This is non-Equity ensemble work at some of its finest.