BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR -- At the Kreeger through March 28.
Recent discussions about drafting women have touched on how that would affect the male war experience. There are men who feel sentimental about that tradition and don't want it altered, and women who feel that such a change would show up the ugly reality of that experience.
"Billy Bishop Goes to War," the one-man-plus-accompanist show at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, is an excellent represenation of the romantic concept of war as a rite of passage for young males. The combination of humorous resignation of personal indignities and courageous response to dramatic challenges is made practically irresistible.
Eric Peterson, a truly versatile actor, plays Bishop, a real-life Canadian pilot who shot down 72 enemy planes in World War I. He also plays a variety of other parts, from an elderly British noble-woman to his own airplane, and gives each of them a distinctive personality, while maintaining the presence of Bishop himself. With only a few well-chosen props, including a toy plane and a full-size one, the actor gives a vivid sense of the exhilaration of airborne warfare, the "clean" camaraderie among pilots of both sides, and even the experience of being decorated by the King of England. Peterson collaborated on the script with writer/composer John Gray, who is at the piano.
It's all very amusing. Bishop was lifted from civilian incompetence to the Canadian cavalry, which he found landed him in the mud -- a good place to look to the sky for relief. Without actually perfecting his mechanical skills, he became a daring pilot. In contrast to a British pilot whose emotions seem to fly on automatic, Bishop represents the best type of war hero because his human side is showing.
The funny plight of the bumbling little man is always best done in a wartime setting. In peacetime, the joke of being bested by unreasonable bosses and uncooperative machines leaves room for the question of why the victim doesn't better his lot; in wartime, it's obviously out of his control. Courage, too, is much more easily defined in wartime, when there's no room for quibbling about what should be done.
Of course, this approach leaves out a few things, such as human suffering. There is no sense of individuals' being maimed or killed to spoil the mood of this show, but only a few general references to some background activity of this nature. We never have to fear for the hero, because he's there to tell us the story.
Nor does any philosophical question about the reason for the war intrude. At the beginning, to be sure, it's mentioned that this unknown "Hun" never did anything to Canada; but later, the war provides its own excuse and Bishop learns to love killing Germans because they have killed so many of his friends.
Thus there is perfect progress from the reasonableness of wanting to live in peace -- "Nobody shoots nobody in Canada, at least nobody they don't know" -- to a joyous relish in the sport of war. An epilogue, set at the beginning of World War II, does have Bishop wondering why it has to be done all over again, but his chief emotion is regret at not being able to relive his youthful adventure.
For what it's worth, this appealing mixture of funniness and daringness represents a tradition of romance in our culture.