Musical compassion

University of Oklahoma stages a perfectly timed musical about a Vietnam War-era Marine and a forgiving folk singer caught up in a toxic culture.

click to enlarge Musical compassion
Katja Yanko plays Rose Fenny in Dogfight.

Dogfight might be one the most interesting choices one could make for a University of Oklahoma stage production in 2018 — the year of #MeToo, Christine Blasey Ford versus Brett Kavanaugh, the year the term “toxic masculinity” went mainstream. University of Oklahoma explores these themes in its production of Dogfight Friday-Nov. 11 at A. Weitzenhoffer Theatre, 563 Elm Ave., in Norman. Four Marines prepare for a deployment that would ultimately land them in Vietnam by joining in on a competition with other Marines to find the ugliest woman in San Francisco and bring her back to a party to be judged.

Originally a 1991 movie starring River Phoenix as Eddie Birdlace and Lili Taylor as Rose Fenny, screenwriter Bob Comfort based the story on his own experiences in the Marines, which lends a confessional tone to the movie. The cruel game was tough for audiences when the movie was released, as was Rose’s complex reasoning for forgiving Eddie when she finds out, but the depth of character motivations earned Dogfight acclaim among critics even as it was mostly overlooked in theaters.

Along came Pasek and Paul (Justin Paul, Benj Pasek) and Peter Duchan in 2012 to adapt this difficult, obscure film into an off-Broadway musical. Pasek and Paul were already Tony Award winners for A Christmas Story: The Musical and would later win a pair of Academy Awards for La La Land. Though a deep dive into the desensitizing culture of the military might seem an odd project to be wedged between the two mainstream smashes, there are common themes within all three projects of men (and boys) struggling to square their emotions with the expectations of masculinity.

And that conflict is at the heart of Dogfight. Birdlace is pulled from one side by his buddies, who are consumed with mission-oriented mindsets that minimize emotions. On the other side is Rose, a strong, forgiving force who wants to bring out Eddie’s better nature, even at the sacrifice of her own emotions. The story asks what is more valuable to society, a man’s heart or a man’s body?

click to enlarge Musical compassion
Daryl Tofa plays Eddie Birdlace in Dogfight.

Challenging nuance

The tremendous nuance needed to handle such a challenging topic is exactly what the director of the OU production, Lyn Cramer, believes the musical format does best.

“A musical composer can take an expression, reaction, intention or a simple look from a film close-up and create an entire song around the feelings it creates,” Cramer wrote in an email to Oklahoma Gazette. “For example, when Rose finds out about the dogfight and confronts Eddie in the club, the result is empowering for her and almost a vindication for the audience as voyeurs. However, the pain and hurt that Rose feels is encapsulated in one of the most haunting and beautiful songs in the show, ‘Pretty Funny.’”Cramer points out that Rose is the strongest character in the film and her discovery only marks the halfway point in the story, not the climax. The real character work comes when Rose decides how to respond to such vile treatment and Eddie’s resulting offer of atonement. Rose’s character is a folk singer, so her retreat into song for soul-searching makes sense, but the musical number also allows the audience to plunge those emotional depths with her.

"The topical shows, the meaty shows always deliver in surprising ways."—Lyn Cramer

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“You know the old adage, When stage characters can’t say any more, they sing, and when they can’t sing anymore, they dance?” Cramer wrote. “Well, there is no real ‘dance’ in this show; a good deal of marching, but the adage is true nonetheless. The intimacy of Eddie and Rose exists because of Justin Paul, Benj Pasek and Peter Duchan. These artists have created an environment where two people from completely different walks of life find compassion for one another in ways of real understanding, not romance. It’s only when Rose shows Eddie her humanity and her deep well of empathy that Eddie can unlock his own.  Song after song and moment after musical moment paints this intimacy for us. It is far more palatable here than in the film.”

Maintaining perspective

Maintaining audience buy-in for the Eddie character was a challenge in the movie because Comfort’s unflinching portrayal of a cultural of objectification rang true and Eddie’s struggle to shrug off the influence of his friends was believable. Though Cramer believes the story is perfect for our current cultural moment, she didn’t want to lean too hard in that direction.

“We approached this show from a military standpoint,” Cramer wrote. “I approached all (the men’s) attitudes from a military perspective. We spent an extraordinary amount of time with Veterans of Vietnam, a Marine advisor and steeped in the history of the period. We have discussed the dogfight, per se, as an extension of their training. By dehumanizing their dates, they are able to treat them as objects rather than women with feelings and, thus, ready to kill men in combat without guilt. These Marines cannot be treated as evil male characters or men with toxic masculinity. They are senseless and uneducated, not evil.”

A pressing question of the time period was how to integrate combat veterans back into civilian lives after fighting an unpopular war, especially as the culture back home was undergoing rapid changes.

This reality informs Rose’s decisions. There were cringing moments similar to horror movies where the audience could only watch Rose walk directly into a situation where she would find pain. But that she did so in order to find the good in Eddie makes for a compelling challenge; lead actors Daryl Tofa and Katja Yanko are going to attempt to pull off what Phoenix and Taylor didn’t quite succeed in.

“Every show teaches you something whether you are directing, choreographing, or acting,” Cramer wrote. “The topical shows, the meaty shows always deliver in surprising ways. I try to stay open to the experience and take in everything I can as I work through the piece. Dogfight has been and continues to be one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences of my career.”


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