Where do war stories go when the battle’s over? As a country, we ask real soldiers to submerge traumatic memories, even as we guzzle souped-up, testosterone-laden combat drama at the movies—or so suggests theater company Van Cougar in their unsettling, meticulously staged new piece, Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din. Conceived and directed by Mark Sitko, Gunga Din is a darkly witty collage of American war sagas, mixing cherished fictions with gruesome truths.
Set in an archetypal VFW hall—complete with fake wood paneling, eagle crest, and plastic signs advertising bingo night and beer—Gunga Din takes us on an often-grueling tour of the American war experience, from Pearl Harbor to grimy Hanoi prisons to IED-strewn Iraqi highways. Clad in T-shirts and fatigues, the excellent ensemble (Noel Joseph Allain, Mary Jane Gibson, Samuel Traylor, Mary Rasmussen, Danny Bret Krueger, and Eliza Bent) mimes Hollywood-style combat sequences—belly-crawling through mud, peering into Vietnamese jungles, searching buildings for insurgents. Cooper Gardner’s vivid sound design fills the linoleum-lined room with nightmarish battle echoes: helicopters drone, gunfire rattles, explosions shake the audience in our seats.
As they crouch in imaginary ditches and duck unseen missiles, the performers relate actual veterans’ testimony in the halting, repetitive language of unrehearsed conversation. These tales are often grotesquely funny or distressingly banal, observations that don’t fit into romanticized notions of heroism or honor. Strewn among the true-life stories are speeches and scenes cribbed from America’s vast repertoire of war films—Forrest Gump, Apocalypse Now, Jarhead. Some selections are iconic (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), some are terrifying (The Deer Hunter’s “Russian roulette” sequence), and others are tough to distinguish from the interview texts surrounding them.
At two hours without intermission, Gunga Din would benefit from a little editing. And it sometimes batters its audience unnecessarily—one monologue, reflecting on America’s addiction to war, quickly veers into lecture mode. But as the stories accumulate, the piece implies that our society is now a kind of giant, national VFW hall, steeped in the unspoken aftermath of battle—repressed histories that shape us even while we imbibe their adrenaline-laced, idealized imitations in Hollywood-blockbuster form.