In the 1570s, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote his famed essay “On Cannibals,” which concerned the inhabitants of the newly discovered Brazil. Having heard and studied a variety of reports, Montaigne concluded, “I do not believe that there is anything barbarous or savage about them, except that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits.” He added that his fellow Europeans “surpass them in every kind of barbarity.” Sadly, the American soldiers of Anne Nelson’s Savages, which concerns itself with the Philippine-American War, do not bring such equanimity to the battlefield. In the play’s first moments, General Chaffee (Jim Howard) steps onto the stage and announces, “Look at them—the teeming hordes. How’re you supposed to read their faces. Their language sounds like monkey chatter. Oh-oh! Oh-oh!”
No right-thinking audience member would ever confuse Nelson’s dialogue (or the Tagalog language, for that matter) with monkey chatter, but there’s a strange unintelligibility that pervades the play. Nelson has certainly done her homework—much effort’s made to jam details and facts into the script—but she hasn’t managed to turn her research into compelling drama. Many generic aspects of the history play and military play feature, but they don’t coalesce satisfyingly. Though the piece is clearly a labor of love (Nelson’s curiosity about the Philippines and the conflict has persisted for two decades), as a theatrical work it’s decidedly stillborn.
The play concerns several real-life figures, including Major Littleton Waller (James Matthew Ryan), a marine accused of war crimes who suffers both a court martial and malaria in the play’s opening scene. A greenhorn corporal (Brett Holland) and a Filipina, Maridol (Julie Danao-Salkin), attend him. Though the quartan fever often occasions delirium, Waller’s narration of the events proves difficult to follow. Nelson may wish to suggest the shameful handling of prisoners in more current conflict, or war’s insidious habit of dehumanizing both attacker and attacked, but it’s tough to make comparisons when Waller can’t quite communicate his story and circumstances. The actors also seem perplexed, though perhaps less by Nelson’s script than Chris Jorie’s direction. They appear unsure what tone to take. Is this realism or melodrama, they seem to ask. Holland seems particularly at sea, and only a remarkable outburst in the play’s final moments indicates what a fine performance Danao-Salkin can offer.
A relative newcomer to playwriting, Nelson had a surprise hit several years ago with The Guys, in which she transformed her own experiences assisting a fire captain with eulogies for his men into a moving and eloquent two-hander. Though she’s clearly innocent of Chaffee’s terrible bias, perhaps Nelson should learn from her earlier success and concern herself with more local savagery and barbarisms.