Michael Brunk
The musical 'Dogfight' currently in production at ArtsWest tells the story of Marines on the eve of deployment to Vietnam.

Farewell to Innocence: Comedy and Tragedy in Dogfight at Arts West Theater

By Amanda Knox

“Farewell to corner stores, apple pies, waffle cones, and chili fries,” chant the Marines on the eve of their deployment to Vietnam. Little do these soldiers realize that they are not only about to lose access to these emblems of childhood, but they really are saying goodbye to their innocence. From the outset, Dogfight proposes situations and characters rife with dramatic ambiguity. Soldiers with the emotional maturity of middle schoolers compensate for their instinctual yet unconscious fear by buying into the propaganda of entitlement and objectification drilled into them by macho military culture. They flex their muscles and hump the air, remind each other “You’re a Goddam hero!” but sing with high voices and quaver in the face of tattoo needles and condoms.

And one young recruit, Eddie Birdlace (Kody Bringman), is in for one last and unexpected gauntlet in preparation for facing his mortality, an encounter with the thoughtful, if sheltered, Rose Fenny (Devon Busswood). First Eddie takes Rose to a party in which the Marines compete to invite the ugliest date, then Rose, spurred out of complacency by Eddie’s casual cruelty, reaches him with her emotional maturity in a way the both of them never imagined possible.

The Arts West rendition, directed by Mat Wright, successfully invites the audience to share in the ambiguity of every scene and character. The boy-warriors are portrayed as both violent and vulnerable, cruel and comic, inspiring contradictory feelings in the audience—affection, pity, sympathy, and disgust. The “ugly girls” are even more comically exaggerated, begging to be laughed at despite their victimization.

The actors successfully render a beautiful, thoughtful, and difficult score (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), full of complex harmonies and cadences that beg to be heard (Busswood’s clear alto is particularly stunning). Just as each song is designed to develop as much emotional complexity as possible, so does the design of the set (by Ahren Buhmann) successfully use all available space in a surprisingly and satisfyingly innovative and minimalist way. With a main stage, balcony, stairs on two sides, and a bedroom that pulls out of a wall, one is reminded of the artistry of an anthill set between two panes of glass. The choreography (by Trina Mills) required to maneuver this space and give the impression of many different locations is smooth and takes advantage of the cinematic cuts in the script. In particular, the dramatic shift between the soldiers running formation before shipping off and the war zone is deceptively simple so as to make fully visible the immediate change to the characters’ demeanor.

For a musical, this story ends with a shot to the gut, especially considering the still recent and unresolved issues of veteran neglect and abuse within our healthcare system. It is an abrupt ending as well, because, while the love story comes full circle, the audience is left with a sense of uncertainty because of all that has been broken. This, perhaps, is the gritty reality that attracted Mat Wright to choose Dogfight in the first place. Despite all the fun along the way, this isn’t your average Disney-esque musical. This is real.

Dogfight will be performed at Arts West from Oct 29th through November 22nd. Tickets are $17-$36.50 and may be purchased here http://www.artswest.org/theatre-plays/dogfight/.

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