Black Watch, the penultimate show in A.C.T.'s 46th season, is being marketed as a major departure for the company. For one, the import from the National Theatre of Scotland has been touring the world since 2004. Also, the company isn't staging the show in A.C.T.'s ornate playhouse on Geary but in the Mission Armory, aka the Kink.com porn dungeon, in a dark, warehouse-sized room big enough to hold several playhouses, or at least to make you temporarily forget about San Francisco real estate battles.
But artistically, the show is troublingly generic. It's supposedly about Scotland's storied Black Watch infantry regiment during its controversial deployment to Iraq in 2003. But it might as well be about any soldiers in any war. Out of the 10-person ensemble, only a few emerge as distinct, and even then they're still stereotypes: There's a blustery commander (Robert Jack), a trouble-making clown (Andrew Fraser), and the stoic action hero to whom others look up by default (Stuart Martin). They do what all soldiers do: look at porn, play stupid games, complain, and scuffle. This small talk is the bulk of the dialogue. Playwright Gregory Burke conveys sense of place, political context, or the cultural significance of the Black Watch only in monologues that feel like informative afterthoughts at best and history lectures at worst.
The play's problems are further compounded by a lack of narrative. It has a framing device of a researcher (Jack) asking the soldiers questions in a bar back in Scotland after the deployment is over. But his stupid questions — "Is peacekeeping difficult?" — produce stupid answers. From these scenes Burke flashes back to the soldiers' memories, but because neither the interviewing nor the Iraq scenes develop, the structure is repetitive: The soldiers horse around, someone yells at them, there's a viscera-hollowing explosion, the actors change costumes during an awkward song, and then they're back in the bar asserting how much gruffer they are than a sissy academic with a tape recorder and a sweater vest. Rinse and repeat.
This is not to say there aren't some lovely moments; one sequence that shows the regiment's entire history through its various uniforms — the gymnastic costume changes are all done onstage — makes for a riveting image. But on the whole the show is little more than one country's jingoism awkwardly transposed onto another's stage.
Black Watch tries and fails to create tension between those who choose, or are forced, to fight a war, and the privileged protected. That's where Virago Theatre's production of Sonia Flew succeeds. Melinda Lopez's powerful play follows Sonia at two stages of her life: When she's a mother in Wisconsin shortly after 9/11, and then when she's a teenager in her native Cuba during the rise of Castro. How she got from one country to the other is a tragic secret her family doesn't know. "Some things you do not forgive; you forget," she says.
Both acts feature a young person called by patriotism to serve his or her country during a time of rising nationalism, set against that child's protective parents. Sonia is on a different side of that conflict in the two acts, and she's played by two actors to reflect that: Katie Robbins as a teenager and Tess Koning Martinez as an adult.
But Sonia Flew is not just about the conflict between obligation to parents and to country. It's also about the ways a political disagreement can expose everything else that's wrong in a relationship, and the weaknesses in a family as a whole — which are both caused and solved by the play's female characters. Lopez's women have deep flaws — Pilar (Olivia B. Chavez), Sonia's mother, blames herself for Sonia's tragic situation: "It's our fault, because we loved her too well." But women are also the most heroic, as when Sonia's teenage daughter Jen (also played by Robbins) keeps the family shabbat going when everyone else is letting it fall apart, or when Marta (Konig Martinez) overcomes her illiteracy and the government's suspicion of her to help get Sonia to safety.
The male performers don't fare as well with their less complex characters, bulldozing their way through their lines with unmotivated bravura, and director Laura Lundy-Paine too often keeps the actors stuck in place upstage behind a table. But the three female performers create a family of titans. For these characters, the simple choice to lead an examined life is a cornerstone of citizenship and peacekeeping. As Sonia says to her army-bound son, "Living a good life is not nothing."