In Fields Where They Lay
When I think of war, I think of unyielding movement and bombardment of deafening sounds. I think of on-your-feet decision making and constant reevaluation of current positions. I think of sweat and smoke and dirt and lack of sleeping. So, when I walked down the moss covered ramp to the hazy-dimly lit theatre at the New Ohio, my initial expectations of both the play and the subject matter were reinforced. I was ready to delve into the world of WWI and Ricardo Pérez González’s In Fields Where They Lay.
The play opened with ritualized movement, the cast marching in from the sides. The pomp and circumstance of the early 20th century warfare was immediately clear. Then, inspired by the sounds of distant gunfire, the cast burst into a flurry of energy, rearranging the main pieces of the set to show various parts of the trenches and to give the audience insight into the nonstop action of the battlefield. The movement of this piece, overall, was spectacular to watch. The choreography of the major battle in the play oscillated between quick-paced kinetic energy and languid unison movements. The transition between the two energies kept the audience on its feet, illustrating what it was like to be present in the middle of the battle. In fact, through many parts of the battle scene, it was hard to keep track of where I was, and hard to find somewhere to land. That is, until the whole cast stopped and looked to the scaffolding. It was in that silence that we noticed the first human causality of the play, a change in demeanor that both the characters and the audience felt.
While the first half of Mr. Pérez González’s play is characterized by quick and highly choreographed movement, the strength of the second half was in the quiet and the stillness of character moments. Partly because the story is told through some real life correspondences of the characters and partly because of the arc of the writing, each soldier was highlighted in some way, allowing the audience to connect directly with the characters as well as their place in WWI and in the overall narrative of war. For me, the most affecting of these moments was Private Phillip Osbourne’s (played expertly by Equiano Mosieri) exploration of what it means to be a soldier of color in this particular time period but also what his personal and cultural legacy will be in the annals of war. While, based on history, Private Osbourne’s conclusion was that his particular contributions were likely to be forgotten, it forced me as a military outsider to reconsider how I think about the contributions of all our armed forces and the lexicon we use to speak about the military and war. Considering the current political climate, I felt this scene was particularly important, given the time it needed to breathe and make its point, and was highlighted in a sensitive but necessarily piercing way.
All that said, the plot of the play actually rested on the exploration of the Christmas Eve ceasefire between the British and German soldiers in 1914. In the tradition of literature such as All’s Quiet on the Western Front, this section of the play served to remind us that all soldiers are just people much like us. Utilizing cast doubling and simple conversations about football, girlfriends, and cigarettes, the similarities between all the people of the war were clearly drawn. The depiction of the ceasefire gave the characters and the audience some much needed levity and respite in the middle of this war narrative. Yet, the ceasefire itself was less important to the overall story than how each character dealt with the repercussions of choosing to join his brothers on the field for the holiday or to remain behind and stew in their principles of the differences between loyalty to your team and the hatred of your enemies.
In the end, the merits of loyalty, hatred, levity, legacy, and camaraderie are all dwarfed in comparison of the actual reality of human loss. While war often makes death unsurprising, the amount of human casualty in the last moments of the play are hard-hitting. The re-explosion of kinetic energy, sound, and lights unsettles the previous moments of love and peace. It’s a melancholy but necessary pinnacle in remembrance of the reality of war in the midst of the holiday season.
Samantha Cooper is a playwright, actor, and theatre cross-trainer originally from Cheney, Washington. She received her B.A. from Western Washington University (WWU) in 2010. She has been affiliated with organizations such as: Annex Theatre, Blood Ensemble, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Northwest Playwrights Alliance, downSTAGEright, Macha Monkey Productions, and Seattle Repertory Theatre. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Playwriting at Columbia University.