Theater note: “American Pilot” explores global tensions

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On May Day 2005, the phrase “Mission Accomplished” appeared on a banner hung from the deck of the supercarrier USS Abraham Lincoln and was displayed during a televised appearance by President Bush, announcing the success of the invasion of Iraq. The event was a mediafest, a spectacle that allowed Bush to create a performance American power in all its blue-skied glory. Critics of the presidency and of the Iraq invasion jumped on the emptiness of Bush’s gesture; five years later, its memory has been amplified as a sign of that presidency’s lies, imperialistic aspirations, and lack of foresight.

The American Pilot, a play written by David Grieg and directed by Amy Rummenie, presented by Walking Shadow Theatre Company through May 24 at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, 711 W. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets ($16) and information, see walkingshadowcompany.org.


In the same year, David Grieg’s The American Pilot opened. Written before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is a drama set in a rural land so savaged by civil war that its inhabitants accept violence as inevitable. Grieg’s play has certainly aged much better than the current presidency, though audiences may disagree about whether it offers a nuanced interpretation of our interventionism.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Jay Gabler on Walking Shadow’s Mr. Marmalade (November 2007).

The regional premiere, presented by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, opened on May 2 and plays through May 24. With generally strong performances, and excellent direction by Amy Rummenie, this production will please those who follow the foibles of American imperialism. Rummenie’s direction plays on the ubiquity of American involvement in every conflict in the world, and underscores the ways in which Grieg’s script seeks to bring a global conflict down to an intimate level and to challenge traditional assumptions that individual human contact can bridge gaps of cultural understanding, poverty, or ideology.

This false promise is tested by one of two major events in the play: the accidental arrival of a US Air Force pilot at a remote village farm. Rummenie’s version plays on the possibility that this is in a Chechnya-like country, with a war that had turned on the question of communism but then shifted to religious factionalism, a civil war with rebels who have visited San Diego and know about the benefits of filming blackmail messages. The script underscores the universal nature of such conflicts: only the slightest of touches, such as Kalishnakov assault rifles, provide geographic clues. Rummenie respects this light touch, deftly adding details—such as head coverings on women—that lightly suggest cultural specificity but also cultural difference.

Thus, the members of the village speak and gesticulate like Midwestern farmers from an indeterminate era. Peter Ooley, in a fine performance as the Farmer, wears a barn coat and solid shoes, whereas Sam Landman, as a dastardly village counselor, sports a flouncy mustache as if this were the universal sign of upwardly mobile town living. The American Soldier (Joseph Bombard) underlines his own American-ness with a slight southern accent. Cultural difference comes to the fore only at moments of communication, when the villagers attempt to speak English to the Soldier. Their phrasing is funny, because it is thick with an accent and often stereotypically inept, but the larger question of communication is at the heart of these interactions, and when the one villager who speaks English refuses to translate fully or accurately, we sense the desperation of the situation.


What will happen to the pilot? The play presents many possibilities. Will he be ransomed? Shot? Married to the feisty young farm girl?


The switch between village communication—occurring in plain and simple English—and international communication—occurring in broken, incomplete, accented English, marks the production’s central tension: the intimacy of the scene, which takes place largely in a barn, and the stakes of the conflict, which are global. With its low ceiling he Minneapolis Theater Garage lends itself to this intimacy; the audience sits on risers surrounding the stage. Members of the audience are up-close witnesses to this desperate cultural exchange between a accidental American guest and his unhappy hosts.

Publicity for this production advertizes the dramatic tension as a question of action: What will happen to the pilot? The play presents many possibilities. Will he be ransomed? Shot? Married to the feisty young farm girl? In the end, though Walking Shadow succeeds not in creating suspense—no good, we see, can come of this situation—but in exploring the small intimacies of a situation where politics is everything. Where the production missteps—including an awkward second half and a finale that is not suitable to the small space or the nuanced acting of the ensemble—is precisely where it does not attend to these details. Part of the problem is Grieg’s script, which is soooo 2005. It’s loaded with music from the early 2000s and a politics that, à la Syriana, attempts to connect every social ill to economic conflict. But the ultimate tragedy is that, despite the fact that this play is five years old, it depicts a situation to which no solutions have yet been found. It is hard, today, to consider that we are still where we were then—perhaps even worse off.

Juliette Cherbuliez is Assistant Professor of French at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and author of The Place of Exile: Leisure Literature and the Limits of Absolutism. Her work has appeared in Nottingham French Studies and The French Review.

Michael J. Opperman is a writer based in the Twin Cities. His poetry, fiction and reviews have appeared in the New Hampshire Review, Coe Review, MARGIE Review, and Rain Taxi. During the day, he works in the interactive space at Clockwork Active Media Systems.