By Austin Kaiser
“The Things They Carried” was adapted from a book to a performance by Jim Stillwell, who left the stage covered in sweat. His eyes looked like they were going to fling at me like the plunger from a pinball machine.
The story goes: a young man is drafted into the Vietnam War and drives to Canada to avoid it. He ends up in the war anyway. You see steel-faced sergeants whose catchphrase, “there it is,” becomes the troop’s automatic response to seeing a dead body. You meet a man who digs a trench every night so he can privately thumb through letters from a hometown girl. You see the main character use a drill to pull abscesses out of the necks of pigs on their road to being turned into lunchmeat. These scenes are disturbing and full of language that lays souls bare. These men are hurt and worried, and fighting a war they might not believe in. Their emotions are intense and their circumstances are hellish. I was disturbed several times by Jim’s acting. He portrayed several two-man conversations including one in which a soldier begged his friend to maintain composure while he steadily lost his mind.
See this show if you like stories of war, history lessons or loud, emotionally intense monologues. However, I can’t recommend this performance much farther than that. Have you heard of the TV show, “The Twilight Zone?” It came out in the 1960s and the 1980s. The 1960s version was popular. The 1980s wasn’t. This is because what was once compelling became corny. In the 20-year gap, science fiction went from obscure to mainstream. By the 1980s, audiences caught up to the tricks of the genre and, within a scene or two of the new series, they could shout out the twist ending, “She lives in a snow globe,” or “The dog is psychic,” or “The main character is in hell, not heaven.” In this way, “The Things They Carried” feels old school and what was once considered “serious,” today seems melodramatic. The writing and acting are a notch out of touch. The main character often clenches his fists and says something like “Don’t die on me!” If the show were a snow cone, it would have a few pumps of syrup too many. If the performance were a piece of writing then there would be italics and exclamation points everywhere!
The main character is an “Oh, the humanity” sort of talker. When trying to decide whether to go to Canada, he has a monologue along the lines of: Canada was this wall, this, this great wall that I…m…m…must climb to find a different world. Here, the United States feels like its own wall. Am I meant to go from one to the other? I feel obligated to one but I feel beckoned into the next. Is there a bridge or a passage or a method? A viewer might be sitting and thinking, “Make a decision already and do something. Go to Canada. Let’s see what happens next.” Many scenes feature indecisive monologues. Is he going to throw the grenade or hold it? Is he going to follow the troops or stay behind? Is he going to swim underwater or not? They’re supposed to be full of tension but they don’t come across that way.
When the main character does decide to go to Canada, he goes because of a feeling in his chest, “a leaking sensation, [as if] something very warm and precious spilling out.” But when he gets to the border, he has second thoughts. He is too embarrassed to ask anyone to take him through. The owner of a lodge where he is staying recognizes this need in him, and invites him on a fishing trip. The lodge owner crosses into Canadian waters and gives him an opportunity to swim to shore. He decides not to take it.
The book was written partly because the author thought the people in his hometown were ignorant of the war. But now, many of its points seem self-evident, predictable and obvious to someone who knows more about social pressures, civil rights, mental health, political corruption, due process, and PTSD. As it stands, the show could use a few minutes in the colander so the melodrama can drain. If the performance were a tray of sushi, I’d drain the soy sauce and let the fish do the talking.
I imagine “The Things They Carried” was cathartic to write and an intestinal firework to perform. I hope Jim continues to keep stories like this alive. Make a clatter. It’s good to fan the flames.
“The Things They Carried”
Written and Performed by Jim Stowell
Sept. 29 at 2pm, Oct. 2 at 9pm
Tech: Loren Niemi
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
AUSTIN KAISER is a writer with an expertise in art and the creative process. His writing is about improving your imagination and exercising your empathy muscle. Kaiser is currently writing a book called, “100 Questions Every Artist Should Have The Answers To.” His other book, “How To Go Viral & Put Wings On Ideas: A Book For Content Creators & Young Artists,” explains how ideas travel and which ideas travel best. More at www.medium.com/@KaiserMane.