at Curious Theatre Company

by Noah Jordan

I’m about five minutes into THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN and very quickly I realize this is not your standard play; it’s actually quite far from it. In THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN (written by Dan O’Brien) the subject of the play; a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who has been assigned to many war zones, asks: “If I’m not crazy anyway, how would I do what I do?” But it’s a question that refers to not only Paul Watson, the photographer, but to many artists, especially the ones who seeks meaning and/or validation in his or her craft.

However, the real central question (at least in my opinion) of THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN is the ethics of warfare; one that afflicts Watson (played by Michael McNeill) in the course of this dramatic work as well as, presumably, during his life. Throughout the play he is haunted by a voice he hears while clicking his camera, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” Whether this is the actual voice of a dying man or whether this voice stems from his own internal struggle is left unclear in the play, either way the moral dilemma is certain: Should he have photographed the scene that made him famous and won him a Pulitzer for spot news photography—of an U.S. soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 by a mob of jeering Somalis? The same photograph which has also inspired the book and film Black Hawk Down and raised a political debate about U.S. military involvement. And yet, as one of the remaining journalists in Somalia, how could he not?

Despite gruesome reminiscences of war and a depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder, the play has light moments and humor—mostly in the bantering of the two men. They form an unlikely friendship, partly because O’Brien (Sean Scrutchins), has demons of his own. Yes, they are of the more-domestic kind but still…demons nonetheless. And because of that, the two men are able to find common bonding ground.

THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN also serves as a travelogue, describing the various places Watson worked in and the playwright’s residences. The friendship is slow to get off the ground because of physical distances. (In reality, they met face to face only in 2010.) O’Brien’s work is certainly timely and provocative, and there’s quite a bit of acting gymnastics in the performances by the two actors—McNeill and Scrutchins end up playing about fifteen additional characters between them in this fast-paced production. Jumping between different accents and mannerisms in the blink of an eye, which is certainly no easy task.

Despite the content of the show, I’m surprised I’m not more “moved” by it. And after much reflection I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps, that’s because as I mentioned earlier the play is far from your standard production. The play is a bit un-play-like, and ultimately feels more a series of vignettes and conversations that don’t always connect comfortably or in a way that allows time for reflection.

There also seems to be a lack of conflict, in my mind. Watson is surrounded by horrible wars and atrocities—as described, not shown—and beset by his inner turmoil. O’Brien is tormented by terrible or non-existing relationships with his family and by a mystery about his birth. They try to get together and can’t. But there is little real dramatic conflict between them, which as an audience member I have a hard time with.

As the theatre empties at the end of the production, the audience seems a bit divided, with the slight majority (I think) being quite impressed, and others having some doubts or just not readily available to express their thoughts. I immediately find myself in the latter category. While I know that I’m impressed, it will be a minute or two before my head clearly wraps itself around what I’ve just witnessed.

THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN is intriguing audiences now through December 9th at Curious Theatre. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. For tickets or more information contact the Curious Theatre Box Office by calling 303-623-0524 or online at Curious Theatre is located at 1080 Acoma Street in Denver.

PHOTO CREDIT:  Michael Ensminger


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