Photo by Theo Cote
The set for Unexploded Ordnances (produced by Split Britches at La MaMa) consists of seven tables arranged in a circle and three large video screens on the back wall. Several minutes into the show, one of the two actresses, Lois Weaver (who also directs), asks who in the audience was alive during World War II. The ten individuals who respond spend the rest of the show sitting at the tables with her as a sort of Council of Elders. It’s really cool.
Ms. Weaver represents the President - no particular president. The second actress, Peggy Shaw, spends nearly all her time downstage right at a desk with a computer. She represents the General - no particular general.
The play’s concern is nuclear annihilation and it unabashedly borrows from the movie Dr. Strangelove. But in that movie the president and the general were specific fictional characters. In this play they’re archetypes, like the figures in Genet’s play The Balcony. Film can’t do this.
There’s not much structure to the play. Ms. Shaw does a nice, silly bit in which she sort of sings “I’m a 60-minute man - Lovin’ Dan” (the General is a man). Ms. Weaver rolls from one empty tabletop to another giving a neat, mysterious monologue. The “elders” are asked what their main worry is and they’re also directed to to read material the audience has wrote before the show. We were asked to name one thing we want to do in life and they read out our wishes as our representatives.
Almost at the top of the show, a secretary (it’s a tiny role; Mss. Weaver and Shaw are really the cast) answers a phone call and tells the General that US planes are headed for Germany or North Korea “or some place like that”. And the real substance of the play is found near the end when the President calls the General to tell him that his country is going to be bombed. This point is unclear since the General began as American and has apparently morphed into someone else. Perhaps the writers (Ms. Weaver, Ms. Shaw and Hannah Maxwell) are indicating that Ms. Shaw is playing a sort of universal general, but this is a fault in the concept.
At any rate, we hear the President’s side of the conversation, and it’s based on Peter Seller’s marvelous conversation as President Muffley with Premier Kissov in Dr. Strangelove. Much of it is slightly rephrased, but there’s no altering the climactic line “Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say Hello?”
The whole thing is just great. Mss. Weaver and Shaw are only loosely in character - at times, Ms. Weaver calls Ms. Shaw “Peggy”. The stage image is haunting, with the spooky blue light from the video screens and the glaring white tabletops.
The script’s most interesting technique concerns the audience’s iPhones. At the beginning of the show, we’re asked to set our phones to go off in 59 minutes. And nearly an hour later - when we’ve forgotten about the instruction - our phones do indeed go off in unison.
The show more or less ends with the final minutes of Dr. Strangelove on the video screens (I assume it’s the real footage): the nuclear explosion. But Unexploded Ordnances doesn’t have the intense black humor of that movie; it has more of a whimsy.
Anyway, it’s terrific! I’ll certainly be at Split Britches’ next show!