THEATER REVIEW:

“Soldiers,” now playing at Glendale’s Luna Playhouse, was subtitled “short one-act plays about those who kill and destroy unquestioningly” on its press release.

The most serious problem with “Soldiers” is this simplistic point of view — the concept that a soldier, from no matter what country, will commit any atrocity on command.

As conceived and produced by Aramazd Stepanian, “Soldiers” is a play about the people who “do the dirty work.” This concept leaves immense groups of dirty rotten scoundrels, who don’t wear uniforms but are equally capable of mass murder, off the hook.

Stepanian uses “Soldiers” as a forum to exercise his right of free political speech. Free speech is something available to us here in the United States because so many soldiers have fought and died to protect that right. See the problem?

The first play, “Leash,” is a monologue by a young female member of the military police, set in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in October 2003. A foul-mouthed, undisciplined, unsupervised Cassie Jessup (played courageously albeit still uncomfortably by Julie Alexander) keeps her prisoner on a leash, and talks to him like a dog.

After she takes digital photos of her prisoner — “Never thought you’d end up as a screen-saver, did ya?” — it’s the audience’s turn to feel what it’s like to be photographed, as if they were objects, and not people.

While “Leash” is both well-written and extremely effective, it seems unfair for “Soldiers” to imply that “Leash” proves any point but its own. The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation had begun before the Abu Ghraib story was released on “60 Minutes II, proving not only that such atrocious conduct isn’t acceptable, but that a free press can gladly, and safely, expose it.

The second one-act, “Mountain Language” by Harold Pinter, deals movingly with the abusive treatment suffered by a prisoner’s family at the hands of an invading army. The prisoner’s mother (a totally believable Claudia Gregorian) and his wife (strong and lovely Jaime Burton-Oare) suffer every possible indignity short of rape, as the prisoner (Sean Weeransinghe in a warm, convincing performance) is violently beaten simply because the mother is ordered to speak to her son in a language she doesn’t understand.

Director Justin Lord made a good choice in having the soldiers walk up to the audience and stare intently at individual faces. It drives home the point of how lucky we are not to live in an occupied country.

The plays in the second part of the evening were written exclusively by Armenian playwrights.

“The Morning is Late” was recently written by Lyudmila Grigoryan as a sincere reaction to the Armenian political unrest that began a few months ago, and is being presented as a sort of “work-in-progress.”

Grigoryan also stars in the play as the mother of two sons — one a soldier and one a protester — in a play reminiscent of stories from the American Civil War, when brothers fought brothers from opposite sides of the same battle. Genuine pain comes through in spite of sometimes awkward acting and staging that can include conversations when all four characters stand awkwardly in a straight line.

Last is “A Fitting End,” which is the story of a gravedigger (the funny and professional Cooper Steve Anderson) trying to bury a soldier (Ashot Tadevosian, also having a good time with the material) who just won’t climb into his grave like he should.

Overall, the political opinions expressed in “Soldiers,” implying that servicemen and women are usually just killing machines, seem to beg the question — what happens in countries with a free press? And when is the last time you heard about a journalist being kidnapped and murdered here in the United States?


 MARY BURKIN is a Burbank actress and playwright and Glendale lawyer.

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