The man behind "Infantry Monologues" knows what he's talking about. Writer, director and co-star Tobin Atkinson joined the Army in 2000 and served as a rifleman in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Later, Atkinson was assigned to Fort Belvoir's Bravo! Army Theatre Touring Company, which he directed through tours in Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Japan and Korea.
So Atkinson has the military lingo down, as well as firsthand knowledge of the attitudes and opinions of troops recently in the trenches. He was still in the service, in fact, when he began writing "Infantry Monologues," three one-acts that offer perspectives on life in the age of terror.
But such intimacy with one's subject isn't always a good thing, apparently. "Infantry Monologues," the first production of Atkinson's new company, Meat and Potato Theatre, boasts loads of detail, natural dialogue and moments when confrontations between friend and foe are crisply conjured. At first you'll eagerly try to grasp the specifics of each story as they're unleashed by the show's fast-talking performers. But as the tales grow more complex, you may still lack a sense of the big picture, and you might wonder whether you missed some important point.
Eventually, though, you'll realize that the monologues' insider attributes make them feel authentic, yes, but they're also alienating: Each piece is like the continuation of a conversation between people you don't know, whose background you're never made privy to.
For instance, in the first monologue, "Coyote Way," Atkinson plays a bloodied man being interrogated by the cops. Media notes say that he's in a Royal Canadian Mounted Police station and that he's defending his own "extreme acts of violence." These details aren't terribly obvious from the performance, however. An early reference to "what I do" is followed by a long history about the man's previous career as a defense counsel to Navajo Indians and a case he took that had supernatural elements.
Atkinson's delivery is charismatic, and details about such bizarre happenings as humans morphing into coyotes is attention-grabbing. But what any of it has to do with "protecting our freedoms," in the words of the news release -- especially if the character is doing so up in the Great White North -- is never clear. The guy kills people, but how or why he made the leap from lawyer to murderer remains a mystery.
"Use of Force," about a female combat medic (Jenny Crooks) who turns to blackmail to get proper care for a raped comrade, is also initially disorienting because the character analyzes prior events as if we were there when they happened. But the gist of the story eventually comes through: The military's failure to acknowledge the attack on her friend, the character says, isn't surprising when corruption in the chain of command starts at the very top, with the immorality of the Iraq war.
The closing monologue, "2CC," also suffers from a lack of clarity. Lights brighten and dim with infuriating frequency to indicate the passing of time as a soldier (Parker Dixon) faces a military tribunal. Dixon assumes the personalities of different characters -- a task that each performer handles deftly -- and the piece seems to involve extreme interpretations of the Patriot Act, a battle between secularists and the religious right, and something bad happening in Utah.
Atkinson lightens all three pieces with moments of wit, and a general undercurrent of righteous anger about our country's affairs is obvious in each. At the end of "Coyote Way," the character scoffs that the public doesn't really want to know the details about what he must do to protect them. The trouble with "Infantry Monologues" is that the audience remains in the dark as well.
Infantry Monologues, written and directed by Tobin Atkinson. Lighting, Robert Ross; sound, Michael E. Moon; costumes, Megan Mai Swanson. Approximately two hours. Through July 24 at Playbill Cafe, 1409 14th St. NW. Call 703-587-5730.