Persecution of a family ensues after a distraught father desecrates the American flag that his son's body was wrapped in upon being killed and dismembered for supposedly erecting an Iraqi flag. Structured in the manner of a Greek tragedy, this production is an earnest effort, but the predictability in the script, the wrong venue, and poor staging choices stifles its impact.
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
Flags by Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Martin is an introspective look at a Greek-American family's grief, anger, and derailment after the loss of their son in Iraq. The production and script uses a Greek tragedy format, replete with a chorus and heralds that take the form of journalists providing a blow-by-blow account of the family's traumatic experience. The Desmopoulis family is comprised of real-life husband and wife team Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry as Eddie and Em Desmopoulis, and son Frankie (Ryan Johnston). Eddie is a tough-as-nails Vietnam-vet and garbage man, Em is his dutiful wife clinging to propriety, and Frankie is the underachieving son that is constantly at verbal war with his father. Benny D'Amato (Stephen Mendillo), a friendly but meddling neighbor and Em's backup suitor should she need one, also weighs heavily on the plot.
The family dynamic is immediately established by both the small talk and the strength of the actors. Mulkey and Landry, under Henry Wishcamper's strong direction, clearly have effortless chemistry, one no doubt facilitated by their relationship offstage, and one desperately needed in order to elicit empathy with their plight. While eagerly anticipating their beloved son Carter's return from his deployment in Iraq, they are paid a visit by Major Rasmussen (Ian Bedford) and a Chaplain (Steven Klein) with some heart-wrenching news: Carter was shot and killed in the midst of raising the Iraqi flag as a symbol of the country's return to power. They also learn that Carter, who was trained in armor, was instead on sewage and cleanup detail when he was killed. Already at a boiling and sorrow-crippled point, the family later learns that Carter was also lynched and dismembered for his efforts. The family receive the dirt-caked and blood-stained American flag that Carter's "body" was wrapped in not only as a practical comfort, but as a way to remind them and the audience that he died for flag and country. No sooner does Eddie allow the pain to wash over him with sobs and his wife's embrace does he resurrect it in a new and disturbing way: attack on the flag itself and its symbolism. The tirade begins when Eddie, who rejects the official explanation of a valiant effort gone awry, demands an apology from the President of the United States and then hangs the blood-stained flag upside down in Carter's name and in protest. Annoyance and interest from the community as well as from the press escalates into danger for all of his family members, and ultimately, more tragedy.
The tiny performance space of Theater C at 59E 59th street Theaters is transformed into a two-tiered stage for this production. There is the general space at level with the house seats, and an upper section that one would imagine would be where the lighting and sound board would be located. It isn't. This design is marginally effective in that the upper stage, containing the journalists, is used as a platform much like the gods of Olympus would use to look over the lives of the mortals. Like gods, journalists in this play as well as journalists in general do have deity-like qualities in that the amount of information distributed by them dictates what and how people think and behave. It fails in that the journalists and chorus (played by Quonta Beasley, Kyle Johnston and Ian Bedford) are sitting stooges until it is their time to chime in. Also, there is no camouflage up there when news segments are being taped. Although there is good multimedia use of flat screen TVs for broadcasts, the news clippings look exactly as they are: two or three actors crouched close together against an inauthentic background and looking into the camera. The exterior of the Desmopoulis home is painted on the back wall, but unfortunately, remains a constant despite an interior or exterior scene. Foam core boards with props glued onto them are used to illustrate different scenes, but nothing can distract from the looming house in the background. Because of the space restrictions, some of the offstage actors such as Em in the "kitchen" could be seen, and as a result, destroyed the illusion of her being in another room. Due to the fact that there are minimal costume changes, there is no indication of time elapsing except for a mention in the dialogue. The set and scene changes, to conform to the 90-minute running time, sometimes end too abruptly. A funeral scene should have been altered for this production because of plausibility. Although the inclusion of rain is effectively somber (though cliche) and the sound effects by Graham Johnson are believable enough, when the funeral attendees with the umbrellas walk away, Eddie and Frankie are left standing there dry and unaffected by the rain. This scene would have been just as poignant in sunshine.
Flags is a passionate stab at illustrating grief as experienced through the War in Iraq. It is timely, and makes creative use of the Greek tragedy skeleton. However, with a predictable ending (both by use of the Greek tragedy format and other harbingers) and an inadequate performance space, preoccupation with the technicalities reduces its well-intentioned impact.
Opens September 15th-30th. 59E59 Theaters59 E. 59th St.New York, NY 10022
Ticket Price: $21; $14.70 membersTicket Information: TicketCentral: 212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com/.
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