Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: (Winnipeg) A Few Good Men

Jeff Strome, Brent Hirose and Cole Humeny (Photo by Epic Photography)

Revisiting Men
by Edgar Governo

Any modern production of A Few Good Men must emerge from three shadows simultaneously: Aaron Sorkin, who has since become very well-known for creating television series (Sports NightThe West WingThe Newsroom) and writing award-winning screenplays (The Social NetworkMoneyball);  the film adaptation directed by Rob Reiner and its indelible starring performances by Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Jack Nicholson; and the changing historical connotations of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, which has become far more associated in recent years with the legally questionable detention of alleged terrorists.

Director James MacDonald does his best to stand out from these competing legacies with mixed results. The central story, involving US Navy lawyers defending a pair of Marines accused of murdering one of their own, will be familiar to those who have seen the film, and the plot remains unchanged outside of some structural elements such as flashbacks. (I hesitate to delve too deeply into plot details, but how much spoiler protection is needed for a play quite faithfully adapted into a hit movie 20 years ago?)

What was most palpable in the audience was the building tension as the mystery unfolds

As an unabashed fan of Aaron Sorkin's writing style, I came to the play with a high standard for how his dialogue should come across—there is a specific cadence to his rapid-fire patter between characters (Sorkin himself describes it in interviews as akin to a musical rhythm) which actually tends to work better when it's more stylized, but MacDonald has opted for a more naturalistic approach. One of the consequences of this is a clash of accents which often took me momentarily out of the performance, with characters such as Colonel Jessep (Paul Essiembre) and Lieutenant Kendrick (Ashley O'Connell) adopting American accents that contrasted sharply with the Canadian diction being used by Lieutenant Kaffee (Charlie Gallant), Lieutenant Ross (David Leyshon), and others. Rarely have I been more conscious of the reality of Canadian actors portraying American characters, but the central importance of dialogue in any Sorkin script made me wish this level of detail had been applied more consistently.

Other directorial details worked very well, however, including a rotating stage allowing for quick transitions from one scene to another and even following characters in motion from one location to another within a scene. This is most notable when Kaffee and Lieutenant Weinberg (Kevin Corey) are shown walking past a number of rooms as they make their way through a naval base early in the play, and I was impressed at how such a simple conceit was able to recreate the walk-and-talk style developed on television by Sorkin in collaboration with director Thomas Schlamme. The constant presence of a barbed-wire fence around the stage was also a welcome piece of set design, serving as a reminder of the conflicting duties and obligations trapping the characters even as they propelled them forward.

What was most palpable in the audience was the building tension as the mystery unfolds, leading to the climactic courtroom confrontation between Kaffee and Jessep and the latter's iconic "You can't handle the truth!" moment. As with many scenes echoed in the film, I had to work hard to separate this from my memories of Nicholson's performance, but Essiembre had already offered a distinct take on Colonel Jessep which succeeded in making this moment his own.

The issues at the heart of A Few Good Men—the nature of truth, the human desire for simple binaries (good/bad, right/wrong, innocent/guilty), the balance of freedom versus security, and the tendency of American culture to put all these forces in adversarial opposition to each other (as one does in a courtroom)—seem much more relevant and troubling today, when "truthiness" is a buzzword and fact-checking feels irrelevant to political discourse, than they were in the late 80s of this story's setting, when Guantánamo Bay was simply known as one of the last hot fronts in a fading Cold War where the enemy was meant to be on the other side of the fence. No piece of adaptational minutiae can ever fully detract from the enduring power of Sorkin's story, offering a series of questions with no easy answers and a courtroom drama where the verdict resolves nothing.

A Few Good Men runs to November 10.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.