Theater of war

The Huntington revives Streamers
By IRIS FANGER  |  October 31, 2007
Scott Ellis

Director Scott Ellis doesn’t call David Rabe’s Streamers a play about war. “But it’s certainly the reason why the characters react the way they do. Four strangers are thrown into this room, which otherwise would not have happened.”

War is, in any case, a subject of the play that grew out of Rabe’s tour of duty in a medical hospital in Vietnam. The experience of seeing first-hand the suffering and dying of young wounded men led him to write the trilogy of which the 1976 Streamers is the final work. The first, 1971’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, ran at Boston’s Charles Playhouse with Al Pacino before The Godfather made him a star. Sticks and Bones had its premiere in New York a year later and won the 1972 Tony for Best Play. The production that’s opening at the Huntington Theatre Company next Friday, with Ellis directing, is, he says, the first major revival of Streamers in 30 years.

The play is set in 1965 at an Army barracks in Virginia, where a disparate group of young men are completing basic training before being shipped off to Vietnam. There’s a middle-class black man, a wealthy New Yorker uncertain about his sexual preferences, a kid from Wisconsin, and another boy driven to extremes by fear of being sent off to combat. Their passions are roiled by two sergeants in their 50s, one a war-weary veteran, the other eager to return to the fight. The play’s title refers to parachutes that do not open when men are dropped onto the battlefield, an occurrence described by the sergeants to terrify the men.

Ellis thinks the play is about the relationships among the soldiers. “They are grabbing onto each other. Their lives are going to change. It’s about racism, sexuality. There are so many layers in this piece, plus the war.” As for current parallels, “I find it remarkable. If you look at Vietnam and Iraq and substitute Communism for terrorism, it feels pretty similar to me.”

Streamers | Huntington Theatre Company | Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston | November 9–December 9 | $15-$75; $15 student rush | 617.266.0800
An “actor who sang and moved” before he became a director, Ellis is known for moving easily from dramas to musicals. Like Twelve Angry Men, the Broadway revival he recently staged (it toured to Boston last season), Streamers has an all-male cast. But Ellis directed the Broadway musical Curtains in-between. “There’s a very different thing, working with guys in a room, a very different energy. It’s an interesting dynamic. The four main leads are very young, so I was looking at talent that I did not know. I wanted four very different individuals in that room.”

Although three decades have passed, he still finds the play’s violence “shocking because of where it comes from and why it’s released. Sexuality is not news, but it hasn’t really changed. You had to be very quiet in 1965 about your sexuality, in terms of the Army. We’re not in a society that’s about being openly gay in the military. It’s dangerous. And racism is still all there.”

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