As if we needed another reminder that war is hell, the audience for the Festival of First's drama "Measure Back" began the two-hour evening sitting on cement blocks. It might have been too literal to begin with, being staged in the Baum Building, once the office of a well-advertised Pittsburgh dentist and inspiring a schoolchild joke from the 1950s:
"Did you hear there was an explosion Downtown?"
"Dr. Baum fell out a window."
There were plenty of recorded blasts during this reworking of "The Iliad," with its confrontational approach that insisted the audience pay attention to the details and moral issues of war, whether it were the Greeks vs. the Trojans or the daily conflicts of the 21st century.
The night began quietly with a monologue by actor T. Ryder Smith, who partnered with Christopher McElroen to assemble a multimedia play using the poetry of Homer to illustrate that little has changed since the Greeks set sail to retrieve Helen.
Opening with jokes and personal patter, Mr. Smith abruptly challenges the audience with a hail of provocative questions, now and then bringing a few members up to cast them in various roles or give them little tasks. Yet, as we moved from our blocks to folding chairs and Mr. Smith from a suit to soldier's fatigues, "Measure Back" lost some of its in-your-face bite as it changed into a more traditional play.
Dionne Audain and Felicia Cooper joined Mr. Smith in a series of scenes focusing on how women are brutalized in war as the man, using a cliched Southern accent, threatened them. In turn, the actresses created effective scenes of tenderness as they shared their common plight.
"Measure Back" seems still a work in progress as themes are uncompleted or explained in heavy-handed ways. The actors, however, are powerful, threatening and sympathetic despite a complicated script and frequent audio and visual distractions.
Be prepared, then, for a physical and emotional workout. "Measure Back" demands that you squirm uncomfortably, standing or seated, so take pains to be ready for it.
Bob Hoover: firstname.lastname@example.org.