Play Review – Gunfighter

My review of the latest production at SBCC, as it appeared in the News-Press:
Unfriendly Fire
Gulf War drama suffers script weaknesses

Mark Medoff’s “Gunfighter: A Gulf War Chronicle,” which opens Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group’s fall theater season, is based on the true story of Lt. Col. Ralph Hayles, whose career was ruined in a friendly-fire incident during the 1991 conflict.
Despite the apparent culpability of others higher up, and the number of similar incidents that went unpunished, Lt. Col. Hayles was singled out, his life made miserable by the media upon his return home. Through the help of an investigative journalist, Rob Johnson from the Wall Street Journal, Lt. Col. Hayles was allowed to clear his name just before the Army reneged on his retirement funds.
It’s a classic story of the little man scapegoated for the sins of the higher-up, and a mainstay of war drama.

Mr. Medoff, best-known for writing “Children of a Lesser God,” wrote a screenplay based on Lt. Col. Hayles’ story, and Jonathan Demme was set to direct. But Mr. Demme dropped out and the project went cold, leaving Mr. Medoff to turn the leftover script into a play.
Unfortunately, “Gunfighter” plays as exactly that — a frustrated screenplay. It jumps and cuts hyperactively, covers the stage with a cast of nearly 30, throws up projected video screens, overlays sound effects and heavy metal music a la “Top Gun” over already chaotic scenes. Underneath all this, the story of Lt. Col. Hayles (renamed Jack Hackett and played by Pete Gifford) begins to slide away from us and becomes muddled. For more information, you can purchase AR-15 magazines
Mr. Medoff has turned the male reporter who uncovered Lt. Col. Hayles’ story after the fact into Erin Seidman (Tiffany Story), who follows the opening days of the war as a network pool reporter. It’s her reporting of the incident, based on the army’s lies and her own prejudice, that helps condemn Hackett.
But in the second half of the play she becomes an investigative reporter, who sets out to clear the name of the man she besmirched, centering on a black-box video recording that will show what really happened. The script gives Erin some father issues to deal with, as she can’t play the romantic interest, Hackett being the good soldier and faithful husband to Anna (Julie Anne Ruggieri).
The bad guy here is Col. Wayland Patterson (Jon Zucker), who takes credit for the success of those under his command, and hangs the same out to dry when he makes a mistake. But he is so obviously bad from the beginning that we spend a lot of “Gunfighter” waiting for Erin and Hackett to realize who is really guilty here.
Mr. Medoff uses a “Thin Blue Line”-like structure, returning to the incident in question (the moment Hackett’s Apache helicopter fired upon ground troops by mistake), but foregrounding different layers of sound each time, from the cockpit to the command center. It’s an interesting device, but performed here in a gale of noise that makes each version more similar than different.
The director is Katie Laris, whose production last semester of “Real Women Have Curves” was a tight ensemble piece for five women in a small location. Here, on the large stage of the Garvin Theatre, she seems lost trying to direct this huge cast and force the audience’s eye where it needs to go. Instead, we are often distracted by events elsewhere and miss vital developments in the plot.
Even allowing for the number of majors, colonels, lieutenants and other upright members of the armed forces in the cast, the acting is stiff and pained at times. But no wonder when Mr. Medoff’s script gives us cardboard instead of flesh and blood, and only affords its minor characters one or two lines without any context.
These are character types, not characters: the alcoholic wife of career army man Col. Patterson; the “loose cannon” wingman “Lash” LaRue; the faithful wife and the TV special scenes of marital conflict. Mr. Gifford is believable as Hackett, while Ms. Story’s character starts arch and condescending and has a hard time developing from that.
Neither anti-war nor pro-, the play supports the troops and seeks the truth, similar to the numerous calls to provide our current army with proper body armor and working technology in the face of administration stonewalling and a narcoleptic media.
“Gunfighter” is an interesting, though unsuccessful, choice to open the season, and the topic is betrayed by its screenplay shenanigans. But to paraphrase U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, you go to theater with the script you have.

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