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Valiant

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There is one, and only one, fact about war: people die. Whether those who die are "innocent" or "guilty," or whether any given war is "good" or "bad," ultimately boils down to one's personal point of view. And any American paying attention to the news can tell you that point of view is more important - and contentious - now than at any recent time in our history.

So what does it mean that points of view about war usually come from men? That men are primarily the ones making the war, and are thus best equipped to talk about it? Or that they're the only ones worth listening to? Neither is true, of course, but never has the case been made as succinctly or effectively as in Valiant, Lanna Joffrey's 2004 Fringe Festival entry, being presented by the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret through Saturday at the Laurie Beechman Theatre.

Valiant is based on Sally Hayton-Keeva's book, Valiant Women in War and Exile, a collection of interviews with women who saw close up (and in some cases created) the horrors of war. Like the book, the stage show, which has been directed by Tamilla Woodard, explores the inborn human sense of obligation as filtered through the eyes of traditionally (some might say stereotypically) more sensitive women.

Which isn't to say that Hayton-Keeva and Joffrey's subjects are soft. They're all survivors: of the Armenian genocide, of Vietnam, of Cambodia, of concentration camps, of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. They're sometimes victims, they're sometimes soldiers, they're sometimes merely bystanders, but they're all, in their own way, remarkable. And their stories, enacted here by three fine actresses (Sharahn LaRue, Tami Dixon, and Joffrey herself), can't help but pack a walloping punch because of their content alone.

But it must be stressed that Valiant is not a play. It's a reminder, yes, of some of recent history's most terrible moments. But it's at best a reading, a recitation, a way to give permanent public voices to women who nearly became only whispers in history. The agenda is not to create a vivid dramatic evening (which Valiant isn't) but an important one (which it is).

Even so, Joffrey and Woodard tend to push too hard, reducing to microscopic size what might be more appropriately writ large. The most literal example is the presence of Hayton-Keeva, represented in the show by text from her book projected (by designer Ilya Gerasimenko) onto an upstage projection screen. It's an interesting idea that successfully establishes a greater context for the interviews and the women's recollections, but the text is both tiny and fast moving, and thus usually too hard to read from the audience; that considerably lessens both its theatrical usefulness and its emotional pull.

It also tends to diminish the actresses, who otherwise give determined, if interchangeable, performances. Each one makes an impact while speaking alone, but it quickly becomes difficult to differentiate characters in group scenes, and any through lines that might connect each woman's characters to each other for a greater sense of continuity are not in clear evidence. But the women's experiences make them all part of an exclusive sisterhood, which has so often been silent that hearing their histories and concerns spoken here is essentially hearing them for the first time.

What's undeniable is that, underneath that one unfortunate umbrella, there are many disparate types of women, who are as unpredictable as any real human being. So don't try to predict what they'll say as a group, or what overall message Joffrey and Woodard might have for the evening; there are as many opinions about the many different aspects of war as there are women to relate them. It's all those opinions, taken in concert in Valiant, that provide a quietly beautiful picture of underrepresented people instead of merely another case of anonymous antiwar agitprop.


Valiant
Through March 11
Running time: 75 minutes, with no intermission
Laurie Beechman Theatre at the WestBank Café, 407 West 42nd St. at 9th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania