Director Joan Littlewood and her colleagues in London's Theatre Workshop plunged open farce into the fog of battle in their avant-garde hit from 1963, OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR, currently running at ArtsCenter Stage. The work, which transferred to the West End and Broadway in 1964, spliced the historical quotes, hymns and popular songs of World War I with the ribald, irreverent—and, more than occasionally, stark—alternate versions that soldiers rewrote to reflect the truer face of combat.
Director Hope Alexander, music director Glenn Mehrbach and a cohort of 11 top-shelf actors surely give their all in this hellzapoppin' revue. A girl (Marleigh Purgar-McDonald) opens an abandoned toy chest on a flotsam-ridden seashore—and a troupe of cirque artists pours out. Their leader and emcee (redoubtable Ian Bowater) puts them through their paces, to the child's initial delight.
But as their strange repertoire makes a low burlesque of the events precipitating World War I, the details are repeatedly muddied more than is either useful or amusing. Part of the blame may fall to the production's decidedly snappy pacing, but most of it is due to the opacity of the script, at least for those of us here in the former colonies.
Let's stipulate up front that an educated American audience should have at least an outline of the events that lead up to World War I. With that said, the social intrigues that lead to Sir Douglas Haig's promotion as British field marshal—and his reputation as "The Butcher of the Somme," who sacrificed an estimated million lives in disastrous battles—remain frustratingly obscure to at least one American after viewing the version here.
And if an audience doesn't know what a "whiz-bang" is (answer: a terrifying form of artillery shell), or that the song being mocked in a left-handed tribute to it is "Here Comes the Dream Man," most of the irony and meaning will be lost.
Frequently, the jokes and darker insights do come across in this production. Chloe Oliver and the other women of the ensemble put across the discreet but unmistakable come-on of "Your King and Country," a recruitment song that reassured prospective enlistees, "We shall want you and miss you, but with all our might and main / We shall cheer you, thank you, kiss you when you come back again." Jeri Lynn Schulke's character takes a more frank approach in a similar song, "I'll Make a Man of You."
The snark is rewarding in the title song—and unexpectedly poignant in "If You Want the Old Battalion" and the gentle closer, "And When They Ask Us." And precious little French is required to register the pathos of Germain Choffart's second-act solo, "Chanson de Craonne."
But a work that would remind us of a brave and tragic history stumbles when an American audience is too often asked to already know most of its intricacies coming in. The result, though in English, remains somewhat lost in translation.