Hollywood has been shell-shocking audiences with a recent barrage of Vietnam movies, from "Platoon" to "Hamburger Hill." But the theater has been over that scorched ground many times before.
Source Theatre squeezes an essence of the unwinnable war onto its compact stage with Amlin Gray's 1979 "How I Got That Story." It's a different kind of Vietnam story, one that finds the black comedy in the heart of darkness. And in its intimacy it makes us see things that all those big-budget war flicks couldn't afford to show.
A young reporter, whose eagerness is equaled only by his naivete', signs on with a corporate-run newspaper and ships out to "Am-Bo Land." He sets out to "write the truth as I see it," and his idealism brings him face to face with the war and the country it feeds on.
Brandishing his press pass as a shield, this nameless reporter lurches through villages, jungles, GI bars, brothels and battlefields. He gets mysterious tips, and meets disgruntled grunts, villagers and guerrillas, and Am-Bo Land's eccentric ruler, Madame Ing, who tells him, "You find us inscrutable here. Be patient -- soon you will understand us even less." And so it goes. He's sure he's hot on the trail, but each time he grasps the thread of a story, it frays into a confusing handful of conflicting yarns. "The only thing I find out as a reporter," he says, "is that I can never find out anything."
Gray's mythical, hallucinatory, anarchic Am-Bo Land is clearly a stand-in for Vietnam, but this is not just another war -- or antiwar -- story. Gray soaks the territory in a perversely illogical logic, and his reporter is an Alice in malevolent Wonderland. As someone tells him, "You don't cover this place, it covers you." It's also a very funny play, but within the progressively darkening humor, Gray takes aim at the arrogance and exploitativeness of the news media, which dare to claim that their version of events is the truth. In fact the play is largely concerned with the slipperiness of "truth," and the fallacy of believing that your own world view is the only correct one.
Gray's coup de the'a~tre calls for one actor to play the Reporter, and another to play the entire "Historical Event." It's a clever and entertaining conceit (and it keeps costs down), but how many actors are up to it, especially under the close scrutiny a small theater affords? Luckily for Source, Michael Judge and Scott Smith prove assured, versatile and loose enough to handle the tricky script, and Stephen Hayes provides thoughtful and freewheeling direction.
Judge, who often recalls both John Belushi and Bill Murray, is fast on his feet as the Historical Event, employing his elastic features and inventive energy to create more than 20 characters: a backslapping corporate exec, a severe, intellectual guerrilla, a barking sergeant, a nun in an orphanage and, perhaps most memorably, a thrill-crazed photographer who documents his own battlefield dismemberments. Although his performance is tinted with humor, Judge resists the temptation to turn his characters into burlesque, creating the female characters with particular sensitivity. His imperious despot Madame Ing is outrageous, but somehow plausible in light of the behavior of recent names in the news; and Li, a bar girl who captures the attention of the Reporter, is especially affecting.
Though Judge has the flashier part, this is by no means a one-man show. Smith plays the weedy reporter with energy and innocence, and as he moves from curiosity to panic, from guilt to atonement, he seems to personify the American public's reactions to the war.
The actors dart in and out of Eric Schaeffer's set, a striking scrap heap of corroded and impastoed walls, crowned with barbed wire and typewritten titles that are projected onto a screen. The rapid scene shifts are enhanced by a taped sound track, a babble-logue created by altering Judge's vocal effects in the recording studio. These sonic landscapes suggest a hostile, sweating jungle, a cacophonous city and the eerily unnatural silence preceding a guerrilla ambush.
How I Got That Story, by Amlin Gray. Directed by Stephen Hayes; setting, Eric Schaeffer; lighting, Christopher Townsend; sound, Don Zintera; costumes, Lynnie Raybuck. With Scott Smith and Michael Judge. At the Source Theatre Main Stage through Oct. 17.