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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 491-492
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Asking And Telling
Another American: Asking and Telling. By Marc Wolff. Directed by Joe Mantello. Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles. 12 August 2001.
In order to create his one-man documentary play, actor-playwright Marc Wolff interviewed roughly 200 soldiers and civilians on both sides of the gays-in-the-military issue to then later perform 18 of them in a series of monologues. These included a gay servicemen recounting his first sexual experience with a Marine in a common shower room, a lesbian soldier-turned-activist's fight to become reinstated, and a soldier who is put in prison and allowed to be raped by an HIV-positive inmate.
Without any costume changes (Wolff wears the same casual gray cut-off T-shirt throughout the play) and with changes in lighting design as the only outside help in providing transitions, Wolff seamlessly performed these different characters, jumping back and forth between them. Director Joe Mantello's minimalist approach was also reflected [End Page 491] on the set design, which featured a simple interrogation table, a large cube formation that rose from the ground into the ceiling, and a row of masts (without flags for most of the play) in the background.
As Wolff debated various nuances of the issue, he worked hard to provide a balanced view, giving equal time to opponents of gays in the military. One soldier spoke of his fear of homosexual soldiers disrupting the spirit of warrior culture in the military. Another spoke of the need to create teamwork, and how having someone of a "different" orientation can undermine such a goal. Yet, not surprisingly, considering the show's liberal venue and mostly gay-identified creative team, the majority of these opposing monologues came off as suffering from bizarre twists of logic and high levels of ignorance and bigotry. One of the characters, however, seemed insightful, as he reasoned that homophobic attitudes often derived from legitimate childhood fears of pedophilia translated into adult anxieties regarding sexual objectification.
The majority of the play did lean toward the gay and lesbian veterans' own stories, and these often highlighted their many contributions, in the form of courage, spirit, or sometimes simply the ability to see the comical in the midst of the tragic. One lesbian veteran pointed out the irony of the military initially excluding women who were married or got pregnant, and then "being mad that it's all lesbians." Another humorous moment came when a lesbian activist recounted seeing some KKK members and being initially offended because their "shoes didn't match their dresses." The play had a surprising number of comic moments, which, of course, heightened the effect of the sadder stories. By the time Wolff performed a mother whose gay son was assaulted and beaten beyond recognition by his shipmates, the play resonated with emotional power. This was then compounded by a forceful speech arguing that the removal of gays in the military constituted nothing less than treason.
As an actor, Wolff successfully performed characters of diverse ages, races, genders, ethnicities, educational backgrounds, and sexual orientations. Yet, Wolff seemed less concerned with acting out those usual markers of identity than in truthfully presenting quirks of speech, body language, and mannerisms. Wolff was particularly successful in capturing the idiosyncrasies of speech of his characters, easily adopting regional accents as well as unusual cadences. He always seemed to capture the very internal mental processes his characters were undergoing, producing convincing and moving characterizations.
Speech, of course, is heavily thematized through the entire play; it begins, for instance, with Wolff playing a tape recorder, and we hear, for a few beats, one of his interviewees speaking to him. Such a foregrounding of speech occurs repeatedly, with characters pointing to the tape recorder, or even referring overtly to the psychic and political implications of not "telling." As Wolff symbolically reverses former President Clinton's policy and does ask, does tell, he demonstrates the importance of speech to the larger issue, showing how speech humanizes and empowers his subjects. In the...