Sunday, March 02, 2014

Theatre: Two Worlds of Charlie F

When preparing myself to watch "The Two Worlds of Charlie F", based the real life experiences of and starring actual soldiers who have been injured on active duty, the words "poignant", "gripping", "inspiring", "powerful" and "illuminating" all sprang to mind.  The play certainly fit all of these adjectives.  What I did not anticipate was how unapologetically irreverent, and even occasionally humorous it would be.

Right from the start, the soldier/actor who played titular Charlie F. defiantly flaunted his amputated leg.  He walked onto the middle of the stage with the help of crutches, the stump of his missing right leg clearly exposed, then hoisted the stump up over the top of his right crutch and stared out at the audience with a cheeky grin, almost daring us to comment.  The action was reminiscent of the old gunslinger movies where the hero would sling his leg over the bar stool at the saloon.

This play was developed as a type of therapy, to give wounded soldiers a voice, and act as a vehicle for them to share their experiences, pain and trauma.  In addition to professional actors, the cast included men and women of the military who have suffered brain damage, are single and double leg amputees, paraplegics, have fractured spines, and other injuries. 

The opening scene is based on Charlie F. portrayer Cassidy Little's real experiences when waking up in the hospital after his injury, suffered in an IED blast.  Disoriented, afraid, and thinking that he had been captured by the Taliban, he thrashed, called for help, fought off and swore at the nurse, doctor and even his own family who tried to calm him.  The scene was shown eerily as a silhouette, as the action took place behind a screen.

We were then presented with the histories of the vets, why each of them joined the military and how they were wounded. The real-life soldiers played characters that were closely based on their own stories.  Maurilla Simpson and her character Lance Corporal Simi Yates shared the same back-story about growing up in Trinidad, wishing to be a soldier and to move to where "the Queen lives".  Charlie F./Cassidy Little joined the Marines as a quick way to win a bet that he could get into shape.  This was followed by scenes depicting the training that the soldiers went through, including learning how to handle their weapons and the importance of their gear. 

In a very powerful scene called "Field Medic Course", an instructor explained what happened to the human body when you stepped on an IED.  He illustrated the point by drawing marks on a stripped-down soldier's body to indicate the areas of destruction.  He described the results of losing too much blood, or if your arms or legs got crushed by a blast.  But the most pressing concern for most was whether their testicles and penis were still intact.

The final scene of the first half symbolically played out the contact with the enemy that resulted in the soldiers' injuries.  As devastating as this scene was, it was just the start of their journey.  What followed in the second act, which dealt with their physical and emotional recovery processes, showed that their experiences will stay with them forever.  Doctors, physio therapy, psychologist visits, flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, feelings of alienation, are all part of their new reality.

To our surprise, although not quite a musical, The Two Worlds of Charlie F. actually featured songs and even choreographed dances involving the entire cast.  The soldiers chanted spiritedly as they went through their physical training period (.. "Just one way to survive.. you work as a team to make it out alive" ...).  When receiving physical rehabilitation treatments and medications, they sang a song whose lyrics simply named all of their pills, to highlight how many were required ( ... "Codeine, Tramadol, Fentenyl"... )  There was even a beautiful dance between three soldiers in their wheelchairs and their respective loved ones.  As the soldiers spun and moved across the stage in their wheelchairs, the women danced around them, jumped into their laps, and even did flips over them.

It was enlightening to also get the family's perspectives, as wives, girlfriends and mothers described about how difficult it was, not knowing what was happening. During their regular phone calls and letter communications, ".. I talk about .. the weather .. when I really want to ask him if he got shot at today...".  They then had to deal with the post-traumatic stress symptoms when their men returned.

The soldiers sang a haunting "Sleep Song" about how "it's worst at night, scared to close my eyes.. I'm not reliving it, I'm living it".  They woke up thrashing and fighting and occasionally even accidentally punched their wives in their sleep.  The women described how they had nightmares too.  One woman found out about her husband's injuries at 5am, and now she wakes up every morning at 5.  It's in her "body clock forever".

The Two Worlds of Charlie F. avoided becoming too maudlin by tempering the painful moments with ones filled with humour.  There was a scene where the double-amputee Leroy compared stumps with the single-amputee Charlie .. "How come your stump's so f***ing Gucci and mine's like an f***ing arse?".  Leroy then revealed that he had been offered porn work while Charlie had not.  "Must be a double amputee thing..".

This play gives such a unique perspective of the realities of war, as it comes right from the horse's mouth.  We left feeling inspired, grateful and full of admiration for these brave men and women.

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