The Red Badge of Courage is technically about the Civil War, but as any English teacher will gladly tell you (and then gladly test you on), it’s more a story about the complex internal struggle of its main character than it is about any historical battle or a particular argument about the conflict.
Writing about a war that was over and done before he was born, novelist Stephen Crane sought to convey the surreal absurdity and terror of battle and its aftermath, the effects these might have on an individual consciousness. It’s a task he accomplished so well that upon publication, veterans of the Civil War were in disbelief that the author was so young and had not been an actual participant.
Though it’s become a great classic of American literature, the novel is notoriously difficult to adapt to the stage because it doesn’t have a structure that can be easily transposed into dramatic form. The novel is more a collection of surreal and shocking incidents filtered through a naive, if perceptive, consciousness: Red Badge tells the story of a young private who initially runs from the field of battle, and then when the regiment faces the enemy again, he acts as standard-bearer.
It’s a small hook to hang a drama on — and how, exactly, do you bring an entire war to the stage? — but an inventive one-act production, currently at 7 Stages through March 23, manages to capture the novel’s depiction of the chaos of war and its overall haunting tone, as well as its absurdist, existentialist edge.
There’s enough stage fog for seven productions of Dracula filling the small black box theater space at 7 Stages in Little Five Points as audience members wander in (even finding your way to a seat can be a challenge), but the overall visual effect is stunning. Through the dense fog, we see a narrow screen that curves, spine like, above our heads. A hole, like the barrel of a cannon, at the bottom of the screen allows for the entrance and exit of characters and for various theatrical elements to be brought on stage. Throughout, the production inventively combines projection, animation, puppetry and live action to tell the novel’s story.
Student actors (Red Badge is a coproduction between 7 Stages and Kennesaw State University) portray the young soldiers: Josh Brock skillfully depicts the central character’s journey from wide-eyed innocence to hard-bitten experience. The rest of the student cast likewise limn the braggadocio, clearly covering a more pervasive timidity, of young soldiers well. Adult actor Bryan Mercer takes on a number of roles, giving us not just several characters, but also the shifting moods and personalities of each character.
Some effects — such as principal characters running through fields or a flashback-daydream to an imaginary circus — seem more cinematic than theatrical in their overall conception. The act of running is central to the story of Red Badge, another reason it’s been a challenge for dramatists: running in place is hard to make work on stage, especially a small one.
Other conceits, such as the embodiment of war as a great fire-breathing beast, manifest poetic imagery too literally, even if they’re visually well executed. But most of the effects — such as the dreamlike bunraku puppet “double” of the young soldier or the eerie skeletal figure that appears momentarily in the mouth of the cannon — aim and hit right at the beating heart of live theater.
In its bravely experimental combination of elements and its smart, fresh approach to a classic, the production bodes well for the theater’s new management, which took the reins from founder and much-admired long-time Atlanta theater veteran Del Hamilton last year. 7 Stages’ daringly inventive production beautifully captures the chaos and absurdity of war.