Strong performances bring new work to life at the Chattanooga's Ensemble Theatre
Audience members may find themselves feeling uncomfortably complicit with Aleksey Scherbak’s hypocritical “motherland” in the Ensemble Theater Company of Chattanooga’s current production of “Colonel Pilate.”
The ETC’s very location heightens the sensation of gaining privileged access behind the security checkpoints of a generic war zone, to witness the bent ethical norms of a disillusioned military unit. Tucked into the back of Eastgate Town Center’s central atrium, the ETC brings John J. Hanlon’s translation of this complex new work to vivid life.
Director Garry Lee Posey commands a convincing unit of predominantly young, talented actors who each hold their own and invite the audience to wonder, along with the character of a visiting reporter, Rose (Evie Durant), what it is that drew each “damaged soul” into this mess of a war.
In the play’s most philosophical exchange, the unit’s colonel (Bruce Shaw) questions the freshly captured “terrorist,” Ali (Joel Rievely), in an effort to discern the youth’s possible motive for orchestrating a string of recent bombings.
Through clever staging and costuming, Shaw and Rievely are poised as ideal visual foils: a senior officer in uniform opposite a bandaged, barefoot ragamuffin. With a quiet self-possession, the captive’s stare seems to pierce directly through his captor’s flaccid defense of his operation’s legitimacy—even that of the entire occupation. Shaw, playing off of both Rievely’s masterful stoicism and Durant’s acerbic cynicism, pulls off the subtle challenge of portraying a war-weary veteran with his human ethos still intact.
In spite of the psychologically challenging themes and slightly stalled momentum toward its conclusion, the production conjures some truly delightful moments of surprising tenderness and humor. There is even an innocence that feels more pronounced against the backdrop of a war meant to be “waged, not explained.”
The consistent banter of three young soldiers, “the Professor,” “Mouser,” and “Red” (Haden York, Xander Merciers and Dereck James Allred), along with the bighearted quips of nurse “Josephina” (Mary Christa Jaramillo Bolin) had Thursday’s sparse but enthusiastic opening night audience laughing out loud. Hopefully many more seats were filled throughout the weekend.
Absorbed in Ali Zarrabi's deft portrayal of the unit’s resident fool, “Bangladesh,” whose ravaged existence is brightened by the mess hall sugar cubes the soldiers bait him with, I recognized a haunting metaphor for the production itself.
As the cast and crew of ETC take on the moral ambiguities of a war that proves unpopular to either support or condemn, potential audience members may be more likely to opt for easier, safer, more generic entertainment. We leave it up to a brave band of artists to unnerve us with a lunatic’s dance.
Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga
5600 Brainerd Rd. (inside Eastgate Town Center).
Thur-Sat, 7:30 p.m.,
Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
Runs through Nov. 23.