David Rabe’s “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” now at Cypress College, is an angry piece of theater, a shout in the ear, a knee to the stomach.
As the first wretched step in Rabe’s Vietnam War trilogy (along with “Sticks and Bones” and “Streamers”), “Hummel” depicts war as a violently depersonalizing process, a benumbing of the individual so that he can look unblinking into the void. In the anti-hero, Pavlo Hummel, a simple-minded loser, Rabe has his victim, the blank recruit who sees redemption in combat’s glory.
Of course, Hummel (Tim French) gets much less (and much more) than he expected. It’s all a betrayal as boot camp is one boring mechanical exercise after another, and he finds no solace in the other men who neither like nor respect him. And once in Vietnam, Hummel, despite his objections, is but a medic giving first aid to downed soldiers in the jungle and forced to see the war’s toll in the mutilated men he cares for at the hospital.
Hummel becomes as hard as the environment--not heroic, not more sensitive, just hard. When he dies in a local hooker bar, the hapless victim in a love triangle, he is just another insignificant number. The only irony is that his death did not come fighting for his country, but while fighting for the chance to bed a prostitute.
“Pavlo Hummel” is, in many ways, a familiar story, but one has to remember that it was first produced long before Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” was filmed or a host of other Vietnam War plays came out. Staged in 1971 at the New York Shakespeare Festival by Joseph Papp, it was hailed as a breakthrough, and for good reason.
Rabe was able to tap into what he saw as the war’s moral vacuity and pointlessness while also heading in new theatrical directions. His use of quick, cinematic scene changes was not an innovation, but it did make good use of the technique to give a disconnected, almost surreal shade to everything.
To further create vibrations of unreality, the play starts with Hummel’s death and, in often eerie flashbacks, retells his basic training and days in Vietnam. Hummel is a ghost hovering above our awareness of the war.
It is not surprising, then, that director Mark Majarian never lets up in trying to give us an intense and sensationalistic experience at Cypress. The acting (almost all of it) is like a clenched fist, and the staging, from Gil Morales’ set and David Darwin’s lighting to the period music, is about as suggestive as Majarian can make it.
There are times when everything works and the power of Rabe’s play comes thrusting through. But too often, Majarian overdoes it, or makes errors that undermine the drama’s potency.
Besides the acting, which needs more variation from character to character and could be less rushed, a host of small things hurt the production. Does every Vietnam War piece have to be accompanied by Hendrix’s bomb-dropping rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” or “Satisfaction” by the Stones? Is all that stage fog really necessary? Such devices have become Vietnam-era kitsch.
His injection of humor into some scenes is also distracting. To be sure, “Pavlo Hummel” does have its comic moments, but when Hummel’s mother (Tish Sherwood) talks about learning of her son’s death, all the while happily plucking hairs from her chin and trimming foot bunions, you know something has been missed in the staging.
As Hummel, French is not always as consistent as he could be, but he does make clear the character’s uneasiness with himself and his world. Dwayne C. De Nolf as Ardell, a soldier who provides the play’s Greek chorus by counseling and consoling Hummel, is a stabilizing element, but he should be more exacting in his diction. As the bellowing Sgt. Tower, Hummel’s drill sergeant, Ernest Jackson provides the requisite symbol for the Army’s unyielding, often destructive make-or-break-them attitude.
‘THE BASIC TRAINING OF PAVLO HUMMEL’
A Cypress College Theater Arts and Dance Department production of David Rabe’s play. Directed by Mark Majarian. With Tim French, Joanne Fukumoto, Dwayne C. De Nolf, Ernest Jackson, Mark T. Somers, Bruce Hart, Bryan Iverson, Richard Aaron Levine, Gabriel Carrasco, Terry Tebbetts, Byron Von Thal, Faisal F. Shayji, Ron Gauthier, Mark J. Mallo, Tish Sherwood, Mason Glen Dow, Rod St. Amant, Ken Seyler, Lorna Pacheco, Tim Jones, Jim Nguyen, Mark Mikawa, Duc Lunh Nguyen. Set by Gil Morales. Costumes by Diana Polsky. Lighting by David Darwin. Plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. at the campus’s Studio Theater, 9200 Valley View St., Cypress. Tickets: $4 to $5. Information: (714) 821-6320.