Gentlemen Volunteers

Pig Iron Theatre Company, Saint Mary's Church, 3916 Locust Walk, through May 17, 382-4777

The sound of the actors coughing in a pitch-black room conveys the terror of a mustard-gas attack at the front lines.

After the tiresome, overdesigned, red-nose clowning of The Tragedy of Joan of Arc a few months ago, it's a pleasure to see Pig Iron Theatre return to the other, movement-and-mime side of their Lecoq training for their new theater piece, Gentlemen Volunteers, directed by Dan Rothenberg.

The simplest of movements creates a location and an activity, a mood and a tone. An actor mimes opening a file cabinet while a clarinetist/accordionist/sound effects artist (James Sugg) makes the sound of ruffling papers. The sound of clinking wine bottles (created offstage by a row of clinking wine bottles dangling on strings) and the murmur of conversation creates a wine bar near the front lines in France during the first World War. A swinging overhead lamp, the clatter of pots and the caroming movements of the four actors across space vividly create the chaos of a field hospital as a new batch of wounded soldiers is brought in. The sound of the actors coughing in a pitch-black room conveys the terror of a mustard-gas attack at the front lines.

Simple Pleasures: Dito van Riegersberg (left) and Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel in Gentlemen Volunteers

All this unfolds in a church basement, as the audience gets herded from one corner of the room to another. An actor pulls a string and turns on a bare light bulb hanging from its cord at one end of the room, as another actor pulls another string and turns off another light bulb at the other end. And so the story gets told by the simplest, most immediate means.

Gentlemen Volunteers tells the story of two Yale grads who volunteer to be ambulance drivers with the Red Cross in 1916, before the United States officially entered the war. It's a simple story, that gets more predictable as the one-hour play goes along. Rich (Dito van Reigersberg) is a football player who can't wait for America to go to war so he can switch from non-combatant to soldier. Vincent (Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel) is an intellectual (another actor slicks down his hair in mime and draws invisible wire-rim glasses on the bridge of his nose), fed up with the carnage and determined to transform his experiences into poetry. Rich becomes lovers with Mary (Cassandra Friend), a British nurse in search of adventure. Vincent becomes lovers with Francoise (Emmanuelle Delpech), a stern head nurse whose husband has been killed.

The plot has few insights and fewer surprises. (The text, drawn from Hemingway, Dos Passos and rehearsal improvisations, was assembled by Solveig Holum.) But the theatrical imagery, and the experience of being herded about a church basement, tells a story that's vivid, effective and memorable, without our having to worry ourselves about the unmemorable little lives that get wasted in the devastating and senseless conflict being dramatized.

-Cary M. Mazer