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Arts & Life

'Red Badge Variations' Updates Classic Novel To Present Day Afghanistan

J. Robert Schraeder
courtesy of Coterie Theatre.

Between this month and next summer, The Coterie Theatre will unveil three world premieres, including a new play inspired by the classic novel The Red Badge of Courage. Playwright Melissa Cooper calls the play Red Badge Variations, and rather than revisit the book's Civil War setting, she was given the go-ahead to update it in order to tell the story of five soldiers serving in present day Afghanistan.

Soldiers' stories

When Stephen Crane's classic Civil War book, The Red Badge of Courage, was published in 1895, he was merely 24 years old - much too young to have served in the defining conflict that had ended thirty years prior. Playwright Melissa Cooper tapped the novel as the central DNA for her new play Red Badge Variations and says she was inspired by the way in which Crane found his own inspiration.

"One thing that gave me great heart as a playwright was that Stephen Crane had never been to war at the time he wrote it," says Cooper. "He wrote it out of a kind of obsessive interest in what was the actual experience of war like for those soldiers that were veterans that he met in his town square when he was growing up.

"That's part of my fascination also - what is the actual experience for the soldiers? He hung out at an artist friend's and the guy had a huge stack of these journals of Civil War recounts that were historical. And he read them cover to cover to cover. And one day he announced, 'Okay, I'm through,' and went off and started writing."

Cooper's resume includes fresh - and freshly titled - adaptations of classic works, such as Antigone Now and Little Medea. Early in her talks with The Coterie, it was evident that she would use Crane's novel as a template for a story updated to the current war in Afghanistan. In fact, as one scene demonstrates, the actual book The Red Badge of Courage is found in the company's living quarters among one soldier's belongings.

Parallel lives

Credit J. Robert Schraeder / courtesy of Coterie Theatre.
courtesy of Coterie Theatre.
Jacob Aaron Cullum (as Henry Fleming) in Red Badge Variations.

The parallels between wars 150 years apart, Melissa Cooper says, isn't based on the date on a calendar.

"I think that some things are the same, no matter how different the war is, no matter how the technology has changed," she says. "We're not using cannons in the same way; we're not having casualties in the tens of thousands as they did in the Civil War.

"But I think something about the experience for the individual soldier confronting combat is the same. And when you read The Iliad or you read Shakespeare or memoirs from the Vietnam era, there is some core of what it's like to go into combat that is the same."

Knowing your enemies

Director Kyle Hatley, Kansas City Repertory Theatre's associate artistic director, has reconfigured The Coterie so that the actors are surrounded by the audience on all four sides. The set is comprised of bunks and sandbags upon gravel and plywood. He says he also can't deny the similarities - that war is war. Still, he finds one comparison that offers a clear difference.

"There is no front line in the war in Afghanistan," says Hatley. "There's a front line in the Civil War; there was a front line in World War II. But here we don't know where the enemy is.

"For these five guys in an outpost in one of the rougher areas in Afghanistan to not have a front line essentially means they're on alert and on guard in a 360 degree kind of way. And not only that, you don't know how to separate who's a shepherd and who's part of the Taliban. You don't know how to tease out who is who."

To help with the production, The Coterie received a substantial special project award from the National Endowment for the Arts, which recognized the script for its "serious, exceptional and rigorous aesthetic value."

Red Badge Variations, September 17-October 5, 2013, The Coterie Theatre at Crown Center, 2450 Grand, Kansas City, Mo. 816-474-6552.

The Artists in Their Own Words series is funded by the Missouri Arts Council, a stage agency.

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