Beween Iraq and a Hard Place

Jill Turnbow: Iraq on!
Jill Turnbow: Iraq on!

Timely isn’t the word for comedian Jill Turnbow’s one-woman show at The Producers Club. Detailing her experiences entertaining troops on the Cunard Princess, an R&R cruise ship anchored in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield/Storm, this piece is not just a stand-up routine packaged as theater. With laughs but no undue varnish, Between Iraq and a Hard Place paints a portrait of Turnbow’s three-month tour of duty — a tour of laughter but also of tears and consolation that reminds us, in our recent rhetoric-induced numbness, of the human cost of war. Unflinchingly genuine about the odd mixture of fear, loneliness, and patriotism that drew her together with men who eventually made her a foxhole name, as it were, Turnbow’s account of her Gulf War is a pleasure to experience.

That Turnbow is not trained or experienced as an actress is clear, but it doesn’t matter: Her lack of polish as a performer preserves the atmosphere of simple honesty that pervades the show. After working the comedy circuit successfully in the late ’80s, this tough-talking redhead received a call from her agent offering a gig in a potential war zone. That Turnbow happened to be in Tulsa, Oklahoma when she got the offer might have contributed to her decision, and a fateful one it was. Her trip to Bahrain, where she was to board the boat, was delayed by snow at her departure airport in Texas. When she finally found the boat’s booker in the Saudi airport several days later she was promptly asked, “Have you seen a band from Canada?”

And so it went. From the first moment, Turnbow faced an overwhelming prospect. Every three days, 950 military personnel came aboard to be entertained; they were nearly all men, some of whom had been stationed in the desert for up to a year. After much of the boat’s female staff quit, Turnbow was left with only 20 other women, outnumbered 50 to one, sharing sole responsibility with one other (male) comic for standing before the rowdies to make them laugh. As tough as she had felt facing down drunks in clubs across America, nothing could prepare her for the heckling, appreciation, hostility, and outright worship she received on board this vessel. In a situation that would have caused many comics of either gender to flee (“It was like taming a frat party”), Turnbow stood tough with sharp and hilarious retorts, determination, and a take-no-prisoners attitude. Each time, she won them over — and had to start all over again three days later.

Among the variety of sobering moments for Turnbow on this floating open bar was waiting in line for the phone behind men whose wives’ voices brought tears to their eyes and whose desire to buy T-shirts for their children reminded them that they no longer knew the proper size. “We talked with them, we cried with them,” and looked at family photos, Turnbow recalls, sharing the need to connect and create human relationships — in three days’ time — with real people under extreme circumstances.

As the deadline for war rapidly approached, the groups of soldiers became more and more serious and anxious — each shipfull displaying, for Turnbow, its own collective personality. By then, her audiences had begun to hear of the Cunard’s comic princess before meeting Turnbow or experiencing her act; in drinking and laughing and flirting with her, they displayed their devotion in their own soldierly way. As Turnbow relates, “I remember one guy telling me he would paint my name on the side of a bomb. How sweet is that!” Soon, the war starts (viewed by the boat’s staff on CNN) and casualties begin to occur. As SCUD alerts are announced and gas masks are distributed on board, the pressure of working in a combat zone mounts. Even Turnbow eventually breaks down and snaps onstage. What happens next is rendered as simply and movingly as the rest of her story, and could temporarily soften a cynic’s view of who we are.

Many aspects of the show are rough; some of it is repetitious and certain moments are not presented with perfect pitch. But in presenting personal experiences on stage, reality is best preserved when the performer’s own quirks and vulnerabilities are not smoothed over. We don’t just want to hear about how funny and how moved Jill Turnbow was by her experience; we want to know how frightened, lonely, and confused she could be as well. And we don’t want her to fake that; we want her to be that every night.

Consequently, the show — which ran last year to acclaim in Los Angeles — benefits from the relatively simple direction of Mark Ankeny. Moments are created onstage that don’t rise above the level of rudimentary one-person showmanship, but none of them ring false. Appropriately cheesy sound design by Turnbow herself recalls the cruise ship/bachelor party atmosphere. To Turnbow’s credit, the patriotic fervor in which the show might have indulged is tastefully subdued except for sentiments that seem to reflect Turnbow’s real feelings — feelings which she doesn’t demand that the audience share.

Almost the opposite of Reno’s one-woman show Rebel Without a Pause, which showcased the immediate reaction of a female comic with a strong point of view to the events of 9/11/01, Between Iraq and a Hard Place contains no anger — just reflection tempered with humor. While it may offer more food for feeling than for thought, Turnbow’s story is welcome as we teeter on the brink of what may be a very different war from its father. The show is moving and timely, not to mention just plain funny.

Featured In This Story