Review: The Body of an American
Now Playing at Portland Center Stage
Portland Center Stage’s world premiere production of The Body of an American takes the concept of ‘shared experience’ to a whole new level. It is a stark, intense work following two literally haunted men. The main characters are playwright Dan O’Brien (author of The Body of an American) and Pul 2000 itzer Prize winning photojournalist Paul Watson, best known for his 1993 photograph of the corpse of an American soldier being dragged through Mogadishu. (The play is inspired in part by Paul Watson’s book Where War Lives.) The interaction between the characters Watson and O’Brien makes for an arresting script that elegantly ponders the implications of bearing witness to atrocity. Actors William Salyers and Danny Wolohan take on the roles of Watson and O’Brien along with a dizzying array of other characters that shape Watson’s and O’Brien’s experiences.
Real-life Dan O’Brien’s dialogue is remarkable for its clarity throughout its rapid-fire shifts between people, time, and places. Such a challenging script requires actors of master-level skill, which luckily, Salyers and Wolohan are. Both Salyers and Wolohan skillfully slip rapidly through characters of varying genders, dialects, ages, and nationalities.
The first act is mainly comprised of the email relationship between O’Brien and Watson, their varied locations depicted through projected maps and images behind them. The two actors do not make eye contact except when portraying a character in the other’s story. It is impressive that this production can make a cyber correspondence so riveting to watch. The small talk, evasions, and pleasantries afforded through email make the characters seem incredibly familiar. The audience cannot wait for them to say what they need to be able to say to each other face to face.
In the second act, the excellent lighting and projection design subtly depict the Canadian High Arctic so well I found myself putting on my coat and shivering along with the characters. The second act is less abstract and the emotions become more nuanced. The scene in which Watson speaks by phone with the brother of the soldier he photographed being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu is one of the most moving I’ve seen.
Despite the intensity of the subject matter, director Bill Rauch deftly manages to keep the production from being too overwhelmingly devastating. The actors find plenty of opportunities for humor, especially when their characters are face to face, and the laughs never feel out of place.
Admirably, the production never falls into cliché to communicate the atrocity of war. Watson’s real images are projected in such a way as to make the audience feel they are sharing Watson’s personal experience. The audience must bear uncomfortable yet riveted witness to the disturbing images as well. Like Watson, the audience is left conflicted over what to ‘do’ with these images. There is no cheap moralizing to be had here. The Body of an American will definitely make you think.
The Body of an American runs Tuesday through Sunday until October 21, 2012 at Portland Center Stage. Tickets can be purchased online.