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Deep Dish Theater Company: Playwright Amlin Gray Uses His First-Hand Knowledge of the Vietnam War to Write How I Got That Story

August 24, 2007 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Deep Dish Theater Company opened its seventh season this past weekend with a play by Amlin Gray entitled How I Got That Story. Although it is a tale of a reporter, “imbedded” in a fictional country as a correspondent, it is actually a play based on the first-hand knowledge of the war in Vietnam written by a man who witnessed it, as a medic in the American Army. Gray, a conscientious objector, served as a medic rather than accept his draft status. A decade later, he wrote the play in an effort to come to grips with what he had experienced.

As a first work, How I Got That Story has a lot going for it. Gray writes the play using only two actors, pitting one against the other. In this performance, local improv specialist and actor Kit FitzSimons plays The Reporter, a man whose writing career has up until now been limited to the west end of East Dubuque, IL. The other half of the cast is The Historical Event, in its entirety. Veteran actor Derrick Ivey (seen in Deep Dish’s Orson’s Shadow last season) returns to Deep Dish to take on this myriad of roles, all of which seem to have the same point of view: The Reporter, be he soldier or not, is nevertheless an Invader, and as such must be eradicated. This viewpoint not only includes soldiers of the enemy; it also includes several American soldiers, the dictator of the country (Madame Ing), and The Reporter’s own boss, Mr. Kingsley of TransPanGlobal News.

We must also note the particularly strong (and evident) contribution made by the technical crew and director Paul Frellick’s staging, which adds a depth the play would lack if left to the imagination of the viewer. We immediately encounter the bamboo curtain that makes up the backdrop of the set; and we soon learn of the precise timing and sophistication of the technical aspects of lighting, sound, and set that must be contributed in order to make this play work.

The lighting design by Elizabeth Grimes-Droessler not only illuminates our set, but also provides the magic involved in bringing modern war — complete with planes, guns, bombs, and tracers — into the small theater space. The set, designed by Paul Stiller, is a series of locales within this Southeast Asia country named “Am Bo Land.” In combination with the lighting, the bamboo that forms the center curtain also, much to our delight, shows the skyline of the country’s major city, as bombs rain on it from above. Sound, styled by veteran Adam Sampieri, is perfectly matched to the set and lighting and creates an atmosphere that greatly enhances our desire to suspend our disbelief.

Kit FitzSimons brings to The Reporter both the enthusiasm and the naïveté of the novice war-zone correspondent. He is befuddled by the obviously calculated delight of his boss at his appearance, stunned when he is witness to a Buddhist Monk who sets himself aflame in protest to the monarchy, and stymied when he comes face to face with the fact that he cannot get a fact. Regardless of how many people he speaks to, no one will tell him anything. He therefore tries to do his job by his wits alone, and they are disastrously not up to the job.

In a series of roles that he brings to life seemingly without effort, Derrick Ivey plays Everyone Else in Am Bo Land. This requires not only switching costumes but viewpoint, language, agility, and even gender. Ivey is remarkably adept at all of it, especially his brief stint as Madame Ing, the country’s present dictator. Not only does he seem perfectly comfortable inside this woman’s skin, but he also completes a massively spectacular dance as the ruler attempts to impress upon The Reporter that she can have him killed and she will be watching him. This gymnastic feat earned Ivey spontaneous applause Friday night.

But even the acutely precise and stunning production provided here by Deep Dish Theater Company cannot remove the fact that this is, after all, a first play, despite the fact that Gray has gone on to a well-heeled career in theater. The Reporter meets every kind of individual you might imagine in Act One; but despite his desire to draw them out, they remain essentially one-dimensional to him and, essentially, also to us.

Act One is written for laughs; and by the end of it, we are still wondering just where this little run-in with history is taking us. The obvious answer is War is Hell; but we’ve all been there, done that, and for the most part the other plays we’ve seen that deal with War in general, and/or Vietnam in particular, have been better works.

Act Two is more serious in tone, but all we really seem to get out of the exercise is that this particular Reporter is woefully unprepared for what he faces. Even though he escapes death in a crashing plane and “goes native,” to use the vernacular, he still wants, more than anything else, to understand why this is happening. And when it comes to war, it is possible to learn very well the who, the what, the where, and the when; it is, however, very, very rare to learn the why.

Deep Dish Theater Company presents How I Got That Story Thursday, Aug. 30 and Sept. 6 and 13, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, Aug. 24-25, Aug. 31-Sept. 1, and Sept. 7-8 and 14-15, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 26 and Sept. 2 and 9, at 2 p.m.; and Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the space beside Branching Out at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $16 ($12 students and $14 seniors), except $7 on “Cheap Dish Night”on Aug. 30th. 919/968-1515 or etix via the presenter's site. Note: There will be post-play discussions following the show’s Aug. 26th (“Meet the Designers”), Sept. 2nd, and Sept. 6th (“Meet the Playwright”) performances. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/current.htm.