Home Entertainment Review | A stirring and provocative musical about a deaf sharpshooter in wartime

Review | A stirring and provocative musical about a deaf sharpshooter in wartime

Review | A stirring and provocative musical about a deaf sharpshooter in wartime


François Truffaut supposedly said there’s no such thing as an antiwar film. “Private Jones,” Signature Theatre’s stirring new show about a deaf sniper in World War I, had me wondering whether it’s possible to make an antiwar musical.

The piece has the shape of innumerable stories of boys transformed by conflict — training and camaraderie-building followed by dread, valor and/or cowardice, then awful revelation — but told through a prism that makes it all feel fresh and, incongruously, tuneful. It’s a stunning achievement.

Truffaut’s gripe was that the very act of simulating warfare for the camera, no matter how random, gruesome and cruel it appears, would inevitably make its barbarism and horror seem exciting and noble. “Private Jones,” a powerfully realized world premiere from composer, lyricist, book writer and director Marshall Pailet, doesn’t celebrate combat or its effects, but it does present the generational meat grinder of World War I as a sort of character-building exercise for its namesake, a 16-year-old sheep farmer’s son from Breconshire, Wales.

Pvt. Gomer Jones made himself a crack shot to protect his small flock from feral dogs. When the war came a few years after meningitis took his hearing, he concealed his deafness, reading the Army examiners’ lips and tacking on a few years to make himself eligible for induction. The morality of the war is explored only elliptically. Reporting for duty is what boys of Jones’s generation, and the next one, did.

Evidently, there was a deaf sharpshooter named Gomer Jones who served on the Western Front, but little enough is known of his life to allow Pailet — and Johnny Link, the hard-of-hearing actor who brings intriguing dimension to the title role — virtual carte blanche to imagine Jones to their liking. Both the character and the show are complex and rewarding, accommodating both the immutable contradictions of a life — a gentle Welsh boy who couldn’t bear the suffering of a wounded dog but who excelled at killing German soldiers — and formally inventive ways of putting us in Jones’s boots. Cutting out the dialogue when he can’t see another character’s lips, for example.

The show features British Sign Language (which various characters use to communicate with Jones) and American Sign Language (in which the show is interpreted for the audience). Projected supertitles appear on either side of Christopher and Justin Swader’s spartan, olive-drab set, which converts from proving ground to troop barracks to a trench on the front with the deft rearrangement of a few ammo crates.

Make that a quadrilingual production: Pailet also gives the show a discrete visual dialect, conveying the idea that Jones will use the sounds he banked into memory in the earliest years of his life to interpret all subsequent experiences once his hearing goes away. The sound of umbrellas being rapidly opened and shut stands in for the flapping wings of birds; the sharp report of a snare drum indicates a rifle shot. The cast performs these old-time-radio-style foley effects in full view, giving deaf or hard-of-hearing members of the audience a visual cue to associate with each sound.

In addition to making the musical inclusive — a mix of hearing, hard of hearing and deaf artists round out its company — this deliberately artificial approach to sound cues and props allows the audience to wrangle with its ideas without undue focus on “realism,” sidestepping that trap Truffaut identified. That musical theater is a form so utterly divorced from realism makes it, somewhat surprisingly, an excellent medium through which to consider war’s rationality-eliding sensory abstraction.

Musically, Pailet’s compositions are paired perfectly to his book, the Celtic-inflected score ranging from jocular and celebratory (the fight song “Bastards”) to searching and resigned (“Cleaning a Gun” and “It’s Easy”).

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Signature stalwart Erin Weaver, cast as a male soldier named King who becomes Jones’s spotter, deserves another Helen Hayes Award for her innumerable phonetic variations on a particular four-letter word. Casting the compact and athletic Weaver as the most vulgar and boorish man in the South Wales Borderers allows her to have a field day sending up the swaggering speech and posture of insecure men.

She also has sparkling platonic chemistry with Link, who threads the needle of conveying Jones’s lack of emotional sophistication without condescension or pity. Once Jones’s unerring marksmanship buys him a ticket to the trenches in France, he’ll find himself at loggerheads with a more seasoned soldier called “Muscles” Edmund (Vincent Michael, another familiar Signature player doing versatile and nuanced work here).

For Edmund, the problem is one of cruel calculus — while Jones’s inability to hear a bullet whiz by his head might imbue him with something indistinguishable from courage, the fact he can’t tell when a mortar shell is incoming requires other troops to protect him. It’s the same insoluble equation that drove Steven Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan,” which questioned the purpose of sacrificing many soldiers to rescue one. Pailet’s rich and resonant musical is in conversation with re-creations of that caliber, whether they are — or can be — antiwar. This is its first full production, but it shouldn’t be its last.

Private Jones, written, composed and directed by Marshall Pailet. Direction of artistic sign language, Alexandria Wailes; music direction, Myrna Conn; choreography, Misha Shields; scenic design, Christopher and Justin Swader; costumes, Phuong Nguyen; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound design, Eric Morris; video design, Patrick W. Lord; puppet design, Nicholas Mahon; dialect coach, Catherine Flye. Through March 10 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. sigtheatre.org.


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