Tuesday, August 20, 2019

"Fallen From the Toy Box" and "A Thousand Words": Conflict and community

The District Theatre is hosting a couple of Indy Fringe Fest shows that have little in common except C. Neil Parsons and his trombone. It's a remarkable turn-on-a-dime versatility that Parsons displays going from "A Thousand Words," a memorial to his combat photographer father Chris Parsons, to "Fallen From the Toy Box," which marks the highly anticipated return of the Fourth Wall, a multifaceted trio, to the Fringe Fest schedule. The shows are a half-hour and a few score feet apart.
C. Neil Parsons lofts his trombone in "A Thousand Words"

I'll get into "A Thousand Words" by raising a side issue, which turns out to be central the more I think about it. At the start, Parsons gives a curtain speech asking for audience indulgence of the script's use of an ethnic slur.  The word is "gooks," a derogatory reference to Vietnamese that had currency among American military during the Vietnam War.

"Gooks" is uttered twice in the course of the play. Chris Parsons, who died several years ago of a disease contracted through exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange, seems to have been remarkably free of the prejudice that word signals, judging from letters home quoted in "A Thousand Words." Instead, the audience meets a Chris Parsons of extraordinary grace, commitment, bravery, and open-mindedness about a role that put him repeatedly in harm's way, armed with a camera and a service rifle (once, notably, without the latter). He also seems to have been just as skillful with words as he was with images, many of which are projected on a screen during the show.

C. Neil Parsons' own graciousness includes the acknowledgment that ethnic slurs should not even be considered all right in their day. This is a matter of considerable vexation today, as it brings up the question of how much history should be sanitized, even mildly, to avoid giving offense. How severely should we judge our forebears, especially the eminent ones, by our standards?

Trigger warnings are a niche genre of speech that's foreign to my generation, which is also Chris Parsons'. We were sensitive to various words that ought not be uttered, but we never thought that they should be prohibited or apologized for even in context: We studied "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," one of the great American novels, in high school; those of us opposed to the Vietnam War admired Muhammad Ali's succinct refusal to serve when he said, "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger." That word is used hundreds of times in the Mark Twain classic.

The performer/creator of "A Thousand Words" is probably justified in finding his curtain speech necessary in 2019. It called attention in a bold way to the show's historical subtext: the Vietnam War, ostensibly fought to check the monolithic menace of international Communism, counted an Asian race as the enemy. When a conflict between nations provides an excuse to maximize the otherness of the foe, it will be exploited to the fullest. "Otherizing" the Vietnamese was further substantiated by the often suppressed fact that America was joining one side in a civil war, and we couldn't always be sure who the enemy was. Such atrocities as My Lai were the result.

"A Thousand Words" acknowledges the pointlessness the war took on for many American soldiers. One of Chris Parsons' 1969 letters mentions the futility of capturing territory or seeing victory in terms of rolling the enemy back, when all that mattered to the military's superiors was "body count." Any  advance could be reversed the next day. His son varies the show's epistolary narrative with a series of set pieces covering such issues as pain and betrayal; they remove us from the specific messiness of war to that of civilian life, notably Neil's. Autobiographical elements are artfully woven into repeated circling back to the combat photographer's visual and verbal impressions.

An electronic score accompanies the performer's exhibition of his artistic skills as dancer and trombonist. The musical and choreographic commentary is abstract but emotionally vivid. A kind of cultural touchstone is provided in Parsons' quotation from the Prologue of Shakespeare's "Henry V."  This does not seem farfetched for two reasons: the theatrical background of both father and son and the status of Shakespeare's play as a landmark of military triumphalism.

Cavorting with childlike abandon: The Fourth Wall's "Fallen from the Toy Box"
Following his sources, Shakespeare has his king order the slaughter of French prisoners, though both stage and movie versions differ on how explicit to make this apparent war crime. Henry's order has made many producers and directors squeamish. When it comes to "otherizing," it may be helpful to remember that European history is replete with deadly examples.

Yet Neil Parsons' use of the Prologue emphasizes taking the largest possible view of both war and peace. It asks indulgence in a different way from his curtain speech. With Shakespeare's help, we are urged to accept that something very complex and confusing has been distilled to present an artistic representation of real events.

And the Prologue ends with a phrase that Parsons has adopted as a mantra, producing buttons that his show's attendees can take with them. The buttons urge everybody "gently to hear, kindly to judge." I hope I have lived up to those words in responding to such a strong filial tribute and unique creative monument to a regrettable war and one of the men who served in it and suffered because of it.

Perhaps one of the strongest ways of overcoming fear of "the other" is the mystical view that our lives may overlap with previous ones on a spiritual plane. This has existed in Western culture from the ancient Greeks as the transmigration of souls, or metempsychosis. Something similar is an imaginatively staged part of "Fallen from the Toy Box," the Fourth Wall show in place just down the hall from "A Thousand Words."

If I understood percussionist Greg Jukes' oral program note correctly, the  Iranian concept of  "rulakam" deals with the superimposition of a dead soul upon a living one. A folk tale about the impression of a deceased mother's lullaby transfiguring a girl's memory as she wanders into the forest at night is the subject of Bahar Roayaee's musical setting. The patient unfolding of the scenario through mime, music and movement demonstrated that the fitness of the Fourth Wall in all respects works with serious as well as light-hearted topics. The trio's construction of a supernatural tree made for a breathtaking conclusion.

Most of its program followed the more comical sides of Fourth Wall wizardry. It was fitting, however, that after the soul-stirring "Rulakam," the show ended with a staged setting of Debussy's "Clair de Lune." To calming effect, the personas Parsons and flutist Hilary Abigana had assumed in the program-opener, "The Toy Soldier's Tale," were briefly reprised. The eloquently staged opener, with music by Brett Abigana, poses an ethereal ballerina, played by the flutist, as an object of affection vied for by the title character (Parsons) and a sly, lively jack-in-the-box (Jukes). The tale's conclusion provides the happy ending expected, but without excessive sentimentality. As the story proceeded, instruments were played in the group's patented manner — with the members in constant motion, accurately and with no bumps or burps.

Games with balloons, using the sort of audience participation the Fourth Wall has always managed deftly, occupied the climax of "On a Spring Morning," which included a delightful episode of the trio playing ragtime with hollow tubes whacked on the floor. Slide projections of toddlers' and one first-grader's "Refrigerator Art" were the backdrop for choreography and music that looked appropriately random and spontaneous but obviously proceeded from careful planning. Parsons wrote the apt score.

Whether caught up in percussive modernism, using a hide-and-seek scenario (for Xenakis' "Rebonds"), or in the gliding nostalgia of Vince Guaraldi's "Skating," the Fourth Wall invariably provoked amazement at the blithe expertness of its accident-free music-making and the agility with which its fey (and occasionally dead-earnest) performances are carried out. Any further return visit to Indianapolis by the ensemble would be welcome.

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