Theater review: 'Gospel According to First Squad' at Powerhouse
The Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble exits its residency at the Powerhouse in Santa Monica on a screeching and penetrating high note with “Gospel According to First Squad,” the latest installment in Tom Burmester’s “ The War Cycle.” (Previous plays include “Wounded” and “Survived,” a.k.a. “Nation of Two.”)
The action, set in 2009, transpires primarily in a small U.S. Army outpost at the mouth of Afghanistan’s notorious Korengal Valley, also known as the Valley of Death. There, a squad of battle-hardened soldiers awaits imminent redeployment back to the States. But when a fanatically religious ideologue is assigned to their squad, divisive factions form. During their last hours before returning home, the soldiers are sent on a risky final mission in which the cracks in their ranks widen to deadly chasms.
Burmester’s script is far from perfect. Plot points can be needlessly repetitive or simply unclear, and the actual events of the final catastrophe remain frustratingly diffuse. But, the play’s very randomness, especially in that blurry denouement, may be Burmester’s intentional attempt to convey the tumult and uncertainty of actual conflict. If that was his aim, he succeeds, stunningly.
There’s no such randomness in the staging. Co-directors Burmester and Danika Sudik approach their duties with appropriately military rigor, and their talented young ensemble sizzles with authenticity and craft. Andrew Crabtree is particularly effective as a testosterone-fueled young warrior who dreads a return to civilian normalcy. A.J. Meijer is also excellent as the squad’s Pashtun interpreter, who is desperate to immigrate to the U.S. to escape Taliban reprisals. The evening’s standout, however, is Jonathan Redding as the squad’s sergeant, a veteran combatant about to compromise his last scrap of humanity. A prismatic glimpse into an ever-shifting conflict and culture, this “Gospel” is chapter and verse one of the finest war plays in recent memory.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
“Gospel According to First Squad,” Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 27. $20. www.latensemble.com Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Photo: Jonathan Redding, A.J. Meijer. Credit: Rafael Tongol.