Internet Comic Strip 'Get Your War On' Goes 3-D on Stage

Jason Liebrecht in the Rude Mechanicals'
Jason Liebrecht in the Rude Mechanicals' "Get Your War On," based on an Internet comic strip. (By Bret Brookshire)
By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006

The Internet comic strip "Get Your War On," which turns five years old Monday, is a furnace blast of profanity and anti-Bush invective. In an unchanging handful of generic clip-art panels that the strip's creator, David Rees, has pulled off the Web and barely manipulates, office drones rant about the administration and curse like gangstas as they run cynically through the news of the day. So this is just about the last thing you expect Rees to say about why he let a theater collective from Austin turn his strip into a show:

"I thought," he explains in all seriousness by phone from New York, "these people would probably do a sensitive adaptation of it."

The Rude Mechanicals' "Get Your War On" is now in a 10-day run at Washington's Woolly Mammoth; Rees will sign books before the show tonight. And, as has been the case since the strips were published in book form in 2002, the royalties will go to mine-clearing efforts in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the white heat of the comic's polemics and a script that chief writer Kirk Lynn says is "90 percent verbatim from the strip," turning this Internet art form into theater has apparently been a delicate business. Lynn thinks Rees's reliance on clip art was "intensely savvy," preventing the figures from descending into three-dimensional literalism and leaving them instead to inhabit a realm of "pure emotion."

Says Lynn: "The strip works because there're these blitzes of language that echo sentiments people feel." Rees concurs. "Visually quiet" is how he describes the strip. "If you just glanced at it," he says, "you'd have no idea what it's about."

So the challenge, according to Lynn, was making theater that didn't feel "leaden, or sitcom-y." The process was actually begun by one of the Rude Mechs' supporters, who brought in a 3 1/2 -hour draft larded with historical context. The Mechs methodically rejected what amounted to explanatory footnotes for recent events, when, say, the president put forth Henry Kissinger to head the Sept. 11 commission.

"We didn't need that much reminding," Lynn explained this week from Austin. "Also, we just like fast things."

Indeed, "Get Your War On," which was workshopped in spring 2005 and premiered in Austin last winter, clocks in at the Mechs' standard 65 minutes. And it's typical for this ensemble-based company that the show's source is non-theatrical. Its previous works have been fashioned from a postmodern Donald Barthelme novel and Greil Marcus's "Lipstick Traces," a nonfiction, punk-fueled journey from dada to the Sex Pistols.

"We sit around the table and read to each other a lot," Lynn explains. "We" is the troupe's five artistic co-directors, all women except Lynn, all in their mid-thirties to early forties, all Type A. Lynn expands on that last trait: "We figured if we became a collective, we'd all get to have our way."

Assignments seem to fall into place naturally; Lynn spearheads the writing, "Get Your War On" director Shawn Sides generally directs, etc. (Lynn's "The Method Gun," also directed by Sides, is on the Mechs' slate for next spring.) But the situation is always fluid, which also goes for other members of the Rude Mechs' 21-member ensemble.

"People can insinuate themselves into the company," Lynn says, adding that branching out beyond one's initial area of expertise is encouraged. The Mechs generally create one or two original pieces per year for their 100-seat theater in Austin. The shows tend to be visually rich. The spartan "Get Your War On" is an exception. It arrives at Woolly with five overhead projectors, a North Korean costume (that nation is a character, briefly), a feeding tube and a few office supplies.

This streamlining seems to jibe with Rees's approach. The cartoonist has "performed" the material himself over the years, combining a quaint overhead projector with readings that stray freely from the script as he riffs on the state of the world. Lately, Rees has pared down even further, trying his hand at stand-up. (Local fans can catch him downtown Oct. 24 at the Warehouse Theater, with John Hodgman of "The Daily Show.") "It's stripping off the last vestige of the physical," he says. "I can't wait till I'm dead; it'll just be thoughts in the ether. Then I'll really be in my element."

Until then, Rees continues producing the strip online and for Rolling Stone, where he's had a contract since early 2003. He also writes other clip-art comics, has a screenplay in progress ("like every other thirtysomething white male in New York") and a head crowded with possible projects.

But "Get Your War On" won't be retired anytime soon. Rees jokes, "If Bob Woodward can keep churning out books about the Bush administration, I guess I can keep it going, too."

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