Viewing the world through the lens of a gun: That’s what so many video game players nowadays can attest to, having spent countless hours running through ruined alleyways, hiding behind wrecked cars and mercilessly shooting their counterparts. War is honored and glorified, but at what cost?
Amy Merrill’s “THE SQUARE” takes a very different approach to the same concept, recognizing the severe toll that war takes on all those involved—the person who served, as well as any of that person’s family, friends and beyond. Performed by six up-and-coming actors, the developmental reading took place on Monday, Oct. 17 in the Mandel Reading Room. This is a mostly unfinished that play that was still in the throes of editing the morning of the reading, so Merrill sought the audience’s opinion to aid the writing process. Interestingly enough, the interaction between audience and playwright proved rather beneficial and unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before.
“THE SQUARE” is a play that immerses audiences in the tumultuous life of Link (Jeremy Browne), a veteran of the Iraq War, and his wife, Rosemary (Melissa Jesser), both of whom are hit hard by the aftermath of his traumatic experience abroad. Link comes home with intense feelings of resentment and guilt, having seen a horrific massacre at Nisour Square, though he is incapable of voicing this internal conflict. Instead, he obsessively re-watches a video that he took of the mass shooting, further isolating himself from family and friends. His wife, who had been unfaithful in the time Link served, finds herself incapable of relating to and communicating with her very changed husband upon his return.
A play that has everything going for it, observing “THE SQUARE” was perhaps one of the most honest performances that I have seen on Brandeis campus. The characters were complex and multi-layered and, even if not completely relatable, still somehow easy to connect with. Each person’s story is so rich and raw, encumbered with the complexity of everyday life—the ups and downs of our very existence—that it was difficult to root for one character more than another character. All the protagonists were so utterly human, and in one way or another were differently impacted by the war. None of them were unilaterally to blame for their misdemeanors; life threw them lemons, and they did the best they could with what they had at their disposal. Some of them tried biting the lemon, others made a lemon cake and still others saved the rind for a lemony zest.
The actors were all-around spectacular in this hour-long performance. Appearing courtesy of the Actors’ Equity Association, the performers managed to breathe such life into the characters and their dialogue that it proved difficult to remember that these were just characters, not real people. Though they read their lines from a script, this neither took away from the performance nor lessened the quality of it. The pain and passions of Link, Rosemary and Vanessa were all too potent that something so trivial was easy to overcome.
As one of the first audiences to witness this play, it was an honor to watch it in its glorious entirety. Given that the actors had practiced somewhere between 14 and 16 hours, it was to be expected that the performance would not have the same polished feel of an on-stage performance. Even so, that’s what made this showing more real, vulnerable and ultimately more powerful.
Guy Ben-Aharon, the director, was successful in helping execute this play on multiple levels, further developing the characters and adding stage directions to help the audience understand what was happening. Without any props or costumes, these tactics really aided the viewer’s understanding.
When the play came to a quick close, the most confounding part of the performance was the discussion that ensued between the audience members and the writer, director and actors. Merrill, who was receptive to any and all feedback from the audience, was candid when describing the most challenging aspects of the writing process. For one, Merrill struggled writing a proper ending for “THE SQUARE” and had actually changed the final scene multiple times before settling with the version that we viewed. That level of honesty and interaction with the audience was refreshing to witness, especially in a world where the arts can verge on pompous. As future versions are produced, Merrill will keep in mind the comments mentioned at the Q&A portion of the event; after all, there’s no better way to get feedback than to ask your audience members directly.
Merrill is a well-established playwright and producer who has written “Driving on the Left Side” and “Silver Spoon.” She is a Brandeis alumna, a member of Brandeis Arts Council and Alumni Board and as a producer is also on the planning team of Basra-Boston Connections, which is an Iraq-U.S. Collaboration in theater, poetry, art and music.
As a seasoned viewer at Brandeis, I can attest that “THE SQUARE,” which was sponsored by the Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation Program and the Division of Creative Arts was stunning beyond belief. It was steeped with real people dealing with insurmountable yet very human problems, making it absolutely incredible, through and through. Waiting for the final version is going to be painful, but any compelling piece of art is worth it.