To finish its season exploring World War I, Carrboro’s ArtsCenter is staging “Oh What A Lovely War,” the 1963 serious satire questioning the politics and military strategies of that horrific conflict. An assemblage of established talents offers a number of fine moments, but technical and directorial drawbacks keep the show from having its full effect.
The original London production contrasted the war’s atrocities with period patriotic songs, staging them and various short sketches in commedia dell’arte style. The 1969 film version was set at a seaside vaudeville show, regularly switching to depictions of the real war.
The ArtsCenter production’s director, Hope Alexander, has her 11 cast members, dressed in ragtag circus costumes and makeup, gather on James Carnahan’s set of curved white cutouts and raised platforms that are covered with blood-like splotches. The players take on multiple roles, using make-do props that gradually shift to realistic military gear. Period photos and newspaper headlines appear on a large screen at the back.
The first act, emphasizing clown-like characterizations, becomes tedious in its over-the-top intensity. But the second act’s grimmer material, combined with a more realistic acting style, is far more engaging and satisfying. Alexander’s addition of a young girl (Marleigh Purgar-McDonald), wandering through the proceedings with an inflated globe of the earth, makes intriguing commentary through innocent eyes. Music director Glenn Merhbach’s trio plays jauntily, enhanced in several numbers with cast member Julie Oliver’s trumpet.
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Friday’s opening seemed under-rehearsed; the staging, singing and choreography tentative and unfocused. This likely caused the uneven pacing of the dialog scenes, further weakened by overdone French and German accents. Worse was the constant shouting that obscured intelligibility, further covered by platform noises from the actors’ vigorous movements.
The experienced cast is not always seen at its best, but highlights include Marcia Edmundson’s fervent speech for peace, Geraud Staton’s raunchy Christmas Day song, Ian Bowater’s blinkered Field Marshall Haig, John Paul Middlesworth’s dedicated officers and clergy, and Page Purgar’s moving church choir solo.
The production gets its points across, particularly in the second act. But audiences would do well to bone up on World War I history, because the barrage of names and places can be overwhelming. Kudos to the ArtsCenter for taking on this rare and difficult material.
What: “Oh What a Lovely War”
Where: ArtsCenter, 300-G East Main Street, Carrboro
When: 8 p.m. May 21-23; 3 p.m. May 24
Info: 919-929-2787 or artscenterlive.org