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'Black Watch' provides gripping reminder of Iraq War

The much-acclaimed National Theatre of Scotland production of "Black Watch" has arrived in Washington at what seems like an ideal time.

This examination of the famed Scottish regiment's experiences provides a startling reminder of a war many Americans seem to have forgotten, along with the continually challenging one in Afghanistan.

Except for the memoriam segment at the end of ABC's "This Week," when names, ages and hometowns of slain U.S. service personnel are briefly shone on the screen, TV viewers are largely spared reports from the nearly decade-long conflict. You can listen to political talking-head shows for hours on end and not hear a substantive mention of those wars.

"Black Watch," presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center through Sunday, practically slaps the audience out of this comfort zone and draws everyone smack into the battle zone, theater-shattering explosions and all (seating has been arranged on both sides of the stage).

Gregory Burke's 2006 play also focuses to visceral effect on the lives of soldiers after they get back home; the work was generated by interviews the playwright conducted. ("ReEntry," produced earlier this season at Center Stage, provides something of an American take on this concept.)  

In a little under two uninterrupted hours, "Black Watch" raises a lot of questions and issues, but it doesn't settle for tired, war-is-hell answers -- or resort to heavy anti-war subtexts. About the only thing we know for sure when the shows ends is

that young men still can learn to believe in the power of regimental loyalty, that they can still willingly  risk their lives with and for their buddies, even if they don't fully know why.

The production, brilliantly directed by John Tiffany, moves at a taut pace across the spare, versatile set by Laura Hopkins.

The viewer is transported from a Scottish poolroom to a beleaguered outpost in Iraq and back again at a remarkable clip as the soldiers reluctantly discuss their experiences with an interviewer (a pool table proves a very diverse prop). That straightforward concept keeps everything tightly, sometimes uncomfortably focused.

Bit by bit, details of the fighting and the waiting for fighting emerge, filling in initial blanks about these ultimately likable, determinedly profane chums (I hadn't realized that Scots use the 'f' word more often than American teens pepper sentences with 'like').

There is very little manipulation in the material, and a great deal of shading between the black and white outlines. At one point, asked about the soldiers' dealings with the indigenous people, one of the guys explodes: "What have the f----ing Iraqis got to do with this?" It's a truly chilling response that seems as explosive as the mortar shells that get so vividly and so often re-created in the production.

There are some poetic moments along the way-- a mail-call scene that turns into strangely touching choreography, for example, and even a suicide bombing that also takes a startling balletic turn. Music, pop and traditional, is employed with great impact; of course, the simultaneously mournful and upliftying drone of bagpipes figures tellingly into the aural picture.

The cast is tightly meshed. The night I saw it, understudy Paul Tinto stepped into the central role of Cammy on short notice and did a compelling, thoroughly natural job. Jamie Quinn was terrifically engaging as the class-clown Fraz. But it seems wrong to single out the players; like a top regiment, everyone contributes equally to the success of the whole.

"Black Watch" is an important work. It won't lose its relevance or its sting anytime soon.

PHOTOS (top, by Rhuary Grant; above, by Manuel Harlan) COURTESY OF SHAKESPEARE THEATRE COMPANY

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