All Quiet, No Front: A Review of All Quiet on the Western Front at the Red Tape Theater
World War I – the “Great War”, the “war to end all wars” – has become, in retrospect, the great proof of the waste, the horror and the futility of war. Poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and films such as “The Great Illusion”, “Paths of Glory” and “Gallipoli” familiarized future generations with the terrors and misery of trench warfare, as well as the arrogance generals and politicians who were willing to sacrifice thousands of lives to gain a few feet of destroyed ground on the battlefield, all for a hollow and meaningless cause.
Of all the literary accounts of the First World War, probably the best known remains the 1928 novel by German writer Erich Maria Note “All Calm on the Western Front”, a brutally honest reflection on his experiences of war. One of the great anti-war statements, “All Quiet” deserves respectful treatment from adapters, especially in a time of general oblivion of our own eternal wars.
Unfortunately, “respectful” is not the word for this dramatization by Matt Foss, who also directs the production Red Tape, which is presented for free at the Greenhouse. In a misguided attempt to increase the work’s relevance to a contemporary audience, Foss and his company stripped it of its historical specificity and altered its coldly objective tone, the quality that gives it its compelling and overwhelming power.
Part of the problem lies in the origin of the play as an academic production of the University of Toledo, which presented it last November to mark the centenary of the 1918 armistice. It still looks a bit like a school project, full of good intentions and necessary compromises in terms of casting and staging.
For better or worse, the trenches of the Western Front were a male environment, and the show’s vast gender-neutral cast – which can work very well in other settings – gives a surreal and alienating feel to a work by quintessentially realistic art. The other eccentric and anachronistic elements of the production – the trench walls represented by pianos turned sideways, the score of the protest song from the 1960s, the MTV-style battle scenes, the absence of guns and other weapons on stage – testify to an over-thinking, overly theatrical, postmodern approach to a text whose unadorned prose already has the impact of an HE shell.
There are a few successful dramatic moments here, such as when the narrator Paul (a monotonous Elena Victoria Feliz thoughtful) while on leave meets a horde of drunk civilians and propaganda spreaders, who appear to have crawled out of a George Grosz or a satirical Otto Dix. canvas, and who know nothing and care less about what is really going on at the front. Also memorable is a discussion within the unit about the profound strangeness of war, which involves treating nations as if they are arguing over people even though, as one soldier notes, “a mountain in Germany cannot offend. a mountain in France ”.
Much of the dialogue and storytelling is taken verbatim from the book, but something gets lost in the dramatization. The show fails to convey the sensory and emotional reality of war: its stench, filth, fear and boredom, as well as the camaraderie and intensity of life lived without expectation of tomorrow. These soldiers seem too clean, too soft, too well fed, too polite. On the page, the simplest sentences of “All Quiet” have the force of a revelation. Delivered on stage by actors who play clearly and with effort, they look like replicas. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Red Tape Theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 North Lincoln, (773) 404-7336, redtapetheatre.org, free. Until September 14.