August 14, 2018

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Deserter questions the true cost of war

Play 'comes unstuck in time' to discuss the effects of PTSD

A work of genuine ambition and scope, Winnipeg playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff’s Deserter is a provocative meditation on how the cost of war continues to be tallied long after the war has ended.

Thau-Eleff supplies a bibliography in the program to his work, an admirable acknowledgement of the fact that all writers borrow from other sources in some way or other. The presence of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five demonstrates at the very least that Thau-Eleff knows to borrow from the best. Like Vonnegut’s hero Billy Pilgrim, Deserter’s hero Curtis Colby (Jeff Strome) has “come unstuck in time.” This is not because of the intervention of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore (as per Vonnegut) but because of the more earthbound reality of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After serving two tours of duty in Iraq with the U.S. military during the aftermath of 9/11, Colby has decided to move to Canada where he has started a new life with wife and Mennonite anti-war activist Jessica (Brittany Thiessen).

He has left the war, but the war has not left him. Suffering from PTSD, Colby engages in strange nocturnal behaviour, such as deconstructing an alarm clock and hiding all the knives in their apartment in the trunk of his wife’s car, without any memory of having done it.

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A work of genuine ambition and scope, Winnipeg playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff’s Deserter is a provocative meditation on how the cost of war continues to be tallied long after the war has ended.

Thau-Eleff supplies a bibliography in the program to his work, an admirable acknowledgement of the fact that all writers borrow from other sources in some way or other. The presence of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five demonstrates at the very least that Thau-Eleff knows to borrow from the best. Like Vonnegut’s hero Billy Pilgrim, Deserter’s hero Curtis Colby (Jeff Strome) has "come unstuck in time." This is not because of the intervention of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore (as per Vonnegut) but because of the more earthbound reality of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After serving two tours of duty in Iraq with the U.S. military during the aftermath of 9/11, Colby has decided to move to Canada where he has started a new life with wife and Mennonite anti-war activist Jessica (Brittany Thiessen).

He has left the war, but the war has not left him. Suffering from PTSD, Colby engages in strange nocturnal behaviour, such as deconstructing an alarm clock and hiding all the knives in their apartment in the trunk of his wife’s car, without any memory of having done it.

Even in the most intimate and mundane moments of his new domestic life, Colby is never far from his military past, constantly hearing the voice of his past superior, Staff Sgt. Yeo (Ray Strachan) filtering every thought into the brash cadence of army-speak.

For Colby, the stress of active duty has been replaced by the stress of living the life of a spurned exile in his adoptive home country.

Though married to Jessica, the Canadian government is slow to forgive Colby’s sin of army desertion, despite the fact Canada opted out of sending troops into the trumped-up Iraq conflict. Former Conservative immigration minister Jason Kenney has a guest appearance of sorts via a recording of a 2009 speech in which he stated military deserters were "bogus refugee claimants."

Strachan, Bill Kerr and Syrian-born actor Ahmad Meree play a host of other characters, including Kerr’s Dr. Zipkin, a therapist whose own Vietnam experience has given him first-hand experience of PTSD. Meree’s primary role is that of an Iraqi actor who opens Colby’s eyes to how the American occupation has impacted the average Iraqi non-combatant.

None of the story is presented in chronological order. We jump back and forth in time in a reflection of Colby’s shattered consciousness. The set design by Brenda McLean reflects this disarray with sand and concrete blocks scattered onstage, a physical chaos on which Colby and Jessica hopefully strive to impose order.

Perhaps the drama is a little too ambitious at times. A few scenes do little to advance the story, which comes in at two hours long (including intermission).

But one is never less than impressed with the way director Arne MacPherson controls the chaos and imposes crisp coherence to a complex labyrinth of words, sound and action.

Jeff Strome makes for a sympathetic hero, a well-meaning guy whose love for his country goes tragically unreciprocated. Strachan makes an especially strong impression as the staff sergeant, a man whose macho military bravado masks a tragic absence of compassion.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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