by Matthew A. Everett • August 5, 2008 • “If you are not in danger, do not fight.”
If you need a really good laugh (with some formidable brains and talent behind it), have I got a show for you. That show would be No Refunds Theatre Co.’s staging of the classic military strategy text, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”
Actually if you want a laugh, it begins with the program – an almost completely fabricated biography of the original author, cheeky bios under the heading “Who The Hell Are These People?,” and a director’s note that is largely just a picture of one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles above the words – “Sun Tzu is Chinese. Ninjas are Japanese. I know. I don’t care.”
This disclaimer is necessary because while the text is almost entirely drawn from Sun Tzu’s book (minus the introduction and conclusion of the play), it is largely performed with the help of No Refund’s signature characters, the ninjas. Charlie Bethel, well-known for his whipsmart one-man adaptations and performances of classics such as Beowolf and Tom Thumb, adapted the book with director Matt Dawson, and the collision of the two styles works wonderfully well.
Playing what would be the traditional Charlie Bethel role of host/narrator/creator of characters in this production is the urbane John Middleton, much of the time wielding humor as dry as a perfect martini. In opposition to Middleton’s self-possession is a trio of whacked-out ninjas clad from head to toe in black, only their extremely expressive eyes showing. The ninjas are Kiseung Rhee as most of the royal characters, Mike Postle as Sun Tzu and most of the military commander characters, and Christopher Howie as the tall and hapless military grunt, the target of many of the other two characters’ assaults and even the narrator’s disdain. This combination of Bethel’s style and that of No Refunds could have stumbled by being too goofy (not respecting the source) or dull (respecting the source so much that one forgets to stage it for a live audience). The fact that it doesn’t wander into either of those trouble spots is something of a minor miracle, and they’re to be commended for pulling it off.
The text is crisp, simple military theory, interspersed with Sun Tzu’s own illustrative examples of what to do, and not to do, in action. Middelton keeps things moving along verbally, while the ninjas alternate between a sort of martial arts version of interpretive dance and role-playing as the narrator dictates. Middleton does get in on a bit of the oddball fun when providing the voices for the story of Sun Tzu demonstrating his theories for an emperor using the ruler’s army of concubines as stand-ins for soldiers. Sun Tzu’s voice is a John Wayne impersonation that I like to think must be a nod to the Duke’s one big blunder into costume drama when he took on the role of Ghengis Khan in “The Conqueror” (The movie is painfully awful, and truly beautiful. You’ll laugh til your eyes bleed. Rent it. The fact that they filmed it downwind of nuclear test sites before anyone thought radiation was a bad thing and most of the cast ended up dying years later of cancer just makes it weirder. Only in America.)
This is unfortunately the perfect time for a show like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. I say unfortunately because our country is currently waging a handful of wars of its own devising and one wishes our political leaders had read Sun Tzu before embarking on their adventures. Sun Tzu understood the practicalities of war – terrain, politics, leadership, morale, provisioning, and above all, diplomacy. One of the more ruefully funny parts of the book concerns Tzu’s assertion that the greatest victories in war are the ones that are never fought, the ones in which no one raises a weapon, and no soldier loses their life. These victories are won by negotiation and are almost never the subject of song and story. But only the smartest and best strategists ever win them. The audience brings its own subtext into the theater with them. About halfway through the performance, I didn’t think I could laugh at the show anymore. All I could think was “Oh man, it’s so blatantly clear. Common sense, completely ignored. We’ve done everything wrong. We are so screwed.” Yet laugh I did. Because Bethel, Dawson, Middleton and the Ninjas know if we don’t find some way to laugh at it all, we’ll go mad.
On top of the misfortunes of the enemy soldiers portrayed by Howie who keep getting the stuffing beaten out of them…
Beyond the giggle-inducing demonstrations with action figures, stuffed animals, and crude maps scrawled on muslin…
The big laughs come at the expense of the leader with no military experience who thinks he knows better than his generals. Rhee, as the incompetent emperor making one poor decision after another in Middleton’s list of missteps, also makes a series of slow double-takes to the audience which become increasingly amusing. The leader is never mentioned by name. There is no need. Those who are inclined to get the joke, will get the joke. Those who aren’t can just enjoy the inept antics of the witless emperor trying to conduct a battle with no allies, no knowledge of the enemy, or strategy (yes, a “strategery” sign makes a fleeting comic appearance). That’s one of the charms of this clever presentation – it’s full of comedy and common sense anyone can appreciate, but each audience member can make up their own mind what it all means, and how it might apply to our current world order. If you’re not in the mood for political satire, it works as slapstick. If you’re not in the mood for mindless comedy, there’s a high IQ just below the surface winking at you if you want to be in on the bigger, and slightly darker, joke.
The first time around, during their wonderful run at the Bryant Lake Bowl, I forgot to note the Mambo. This would be the non-narrated portion of the program, in which the Ninjas dance around with an enormous pad of paper – interpreting the text for the audience to the best of their abilities by shaking their money-makers.
The No Refunds crew takes full advantage of the far vaster stage at the Rarig Center Proscenium this time around. Expanded in size, the military maneuvers get an extra comic jolt. If there’s any justice in this Fringey world, the extra seats at the Rarig will all be filled as well. This is a leaner, tighter production, perfect Fringe fare.
As the No Refunds site – www.norefundstheatre.com – says, “For more information on Sun Tzu or the Art of War, visit your local library, or ask your mom.” Or, just visit their show page on the Fringe site, they have links there – to Sun Tzu and the Art of War, not your mom.
It’s both comforting and a little disconcerting that this military advice has been around, proven right, and regularly ignored, since around 500 B.C. Worth revisiting in this comic context. After all, those who forget the past…
Remaining Performances –
University of Minnesota Rarig Center Proscenium
TONIGHT – Tuesday, August 5th, 8:30pm
Thursday, August 7th, 7pm
Friday, August 8th, 8:30pm
Saturday, August 9, 10pm
Entering his sixth year of blogging about the Minnesota Fringe Festival (and bringing Mom along for the ride as a guest reviewer), Matthew A. Everett is also a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.