Theater Review: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Red Tape Theatre and Greenhouse Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 17, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


One of the saddest truths about humanity is that we always need to be warned against war, so tempting is its license to kill. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, was not, alas, the anti-war novel to end all anti-war novels. It arrived half-way between two world wars and would be banned by the Nazis: These latest warmongers didn’t want Remarque’s corrosive truth-telling to spoil their plans for destroying another generation of German youth. But, far from pandering to politics, the author declared the work “neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.”

Now in a compelling 110-minute condensation written and directed by Matt Foss for Red Tape Theater, co-produced by and at the Greenhouse Theater Center, All Quiet on the Western Front detonates again in a gender-neutral retelling. This story of a lost generation (here German soldiers) betrayed by ignorant adults in pursuit of a pointless victory, and robbed of ideals, hope and finally life, rekindles its rage five generations later.

The ravaged landscape Remarque depicts is littered with the dropped dreams of once-young warriors. Deceived by the treachery of bogus patriotism, they’re so many orphans of the storm: “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”

This journey through the bowels of combat is told from the soon-to-be-snuffed Paul Baumer (Elena Victoria Feliz), a member of the Second Company sent as cannon fodder to the front lines. His two-year tour of duty does not end well — on a day when the situation report ironically declared that it was “all quiet on the western front.”

Before this inconvenient death occurs, Remarque via Foss details the soul-shrinking tedium of basic training and trench warfare amid the sheer randomness of killing or being killed. Alas, his home leave only convinces Paul that he’s cut off forever from the maddening certainties of clueless civilians.

Foss’s rapid-fire staging and Red Tape’s dozen actors transport us from the dying hell of No Man’s Land to amputations at field hospitals (where the nuns pray too loudly) to bittersweet Christmas celebrations to the stolen intimacy of a rendezvous with three French locals. Desperate for food and fearing whatever can come in the next minute, the recruits grow up fast but not quickly enough not to die. Adding to their multiple miseries is Corporal Himmelstoss (Brenda Scott Wiazlo), a brutal drill sergeant who’s demoted for cruelty to cadets.

Playing civilians and soldiers, stretcher bearers and imbecilic grown-ups, the ensemble engages in combat choreography and tableaux of terror, punctuated with devastating sound effects by Dan Poppen and set against a surreal barbed-wire backdrop by Nicholas James Schwartz that curiously includes four upright pianos and an abandoned keyboard.

We’re left bereft: The Red Tape company conveys with toxic conviction a burnt-out, shell-shocked band of brothers destroyed from within and without by the triumph of stupidity and an international land grab. These lost soldiers are no longer the hated Huns of wartime propaganda. They’re just a bunch of frightened boys perishing fifty years before their time. A hundred years later, the wounds have yet to heal.

Admission is free.

photos by Austin Oie

All Quiet on the Western Front
Red Tape Theatre
a co-production with Greenhouse Theatre Center
in cooperation with The University of Toledo
Greenhouse Theatre, 2257 N Lincoln Ave.
Fri, Sat & Mon (Industry Night) at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
ends on September 14, 2019
for tickets, visit Red Tape Theatre

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