Jim Sterling and Marc Palmieri
in Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous) 1918
Photo © Dixie Sheridan
Jim Sterling and Marc Palmieri
in Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous) 1918
Photo © Dixie Sheridan
Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented on Francisco de Goya's depictions of the bloody Peninsular War between Spain and Portugal in one of his most famous poems:
In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
'suffering humanity'
The Axis Company's latest experimental piece is a less violent but still brutal depiction of war. Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous) 1918 takes place in what appears to be the memories of shell-shocked World War I soldiers who constantly re-live the minutes before their platoon is threatened with a chemical bombing. It is a "portrait" in the truest sense of the word, taking place in a single setting -- a dusty trench that's rendered with awe-inspiring realism -- with barely any narrative. When entering the company's basement space, the audience sees a panoramic picture of soldiers scattered across the space, some huddled for warmth, others checking equipment, and another exploring a tunnel. Even when the action begins, the actors do little else than what we might imagine to be their daily routine in between battles. (Theatergoers looking for an epic war story should look elsewhere.)

Yet, given the context, all of this is far from boring. The taut, 55-minute piece does nothing less audacious than imagine the collapsed psychological conditions of thousands of WWI veterans. Performed with surgical precision and cool professionalism, it avoids any trace of exploitation or shock value. Instead of gunshots firing and bombs blasting, we get snatches of conversation between soldiers as they express their fears and raise unanswerable questions. One repeats a rumor that he heard about German warfare; another, the Army Photographic Corps specialist, explains the newish technology to an interested infantryman.

These are All-American GIs, hard-working young men who talk about their families back home in one breath and speak derisively of the "Krauts" the next. Although they are familiar characters out of Central Casting, the company breathes life into their archetypes with achingly human, sometimes deliberately banal dialogue. As they speak, images of former war sites are projected on the side of the stage in a loop. (Word is that Axis Company members took the footage in several European locations while researching this project; in any event, Dan Hersey is given credit for the film and digital video clips in the program.) It's a subtle use of multimedia; if you tilt your head during the performance, you might miss the clips entirely, but they serve as an ongoing metaphor for the catatonia of the GIs: The jump cuts in the footage mirror the disjointed nature of the characters' memories.

The acting of Brian Barnhart, David Crabb, George Demas, Marc Palmieri, Margo Passalaqua (who plays an androgynous soldier), Jim Sterling, and Ian Tooley is uniformly solid. This is fine ensemble work. Designer Kate Aronsson-Brown deserves praise for one of the most striking sets that can currently be found Off-Off-Broadway. (John Widger constructed it.) David Zeffren's moody blue lighting highlights the general atmosphere of foreboding, while Steve Fontaine's sound design is understated and effective. Artistic director Randy Sharp guides it all sharply.

The program notes ask provocative questions about soldiers back home after WWI: "In their struggle to return to a normal life, what visions were endlessly replayed? What memories did they desperately try to decipher and forget?" One might expect more commotion from a show that starts from this place. Some audiences may even be disappointed by the muted treatment of the subject but, like technicians deactivating an explosive, the Axis Company has crafted a cool production out of volatile material.