The rare show to warrant adjectives like wrenching and harrowing, David T. Little’s 60-minute operatic suite Solider Songs is engineered to wrench and harrow—and to dare theatergoers into actually shielding their eyes. Christopher Burchett, a strapping baritone, stars as an every-soldier subjected to harsh wartime experiences apparently only communicable through words, music, and heat-lamp strobe lights blasting into the faces of the audience. That abusive trick, one meant to lift the attending of a show into the realm of searing experience, was also recently hauled out by the filmmakers behind Universal Soldier 4: Day of Reckoning. There’s something appropriate to that coincidence, as the brooding, bruising Soldier Songs is itself a day of reckoning: Suffer the hell that our young people go through overseas, director Yuval Sharon’s staging seems to beseech as the piece grinds away at you.
Still, this is powerful work, even if the staging sometimes strains to show us just how powerful it is. David T. Little’s music, played by the chamber ensemble Newspeak, is often a muscular drone, a hard-rock minimalism that complements the tortured inner life of Burchett’s soldier, whose mind, since youth, has been ruled by the boyish violence of toy guns and videogames. Little’s libretto, drawn from his interviews with military personnel, matches. Once he’s sent off to “the desert,” Burchett’s soldier sings about playing Metallica to get into the mood for his bloody work. Newspeak obliges by sawing away Master of Puppets-style. (That song, “Still Life With Tank and iPod,” is every bit as good as its title.)
Little and company are after the hellishnes of the soldier’s life. To that end, Burchett laments his lot over a dissonant grind and a din of war sirens. Amid the chaos, you might cling to the organic marvel of his voice. As he plumbs his lower register, each note comes as full and rich as port in a goblet; when a note lingers, you can almost swirl it about your mind and check it for tannins.
The show opens with a child (Zac Ballard) who will either grow into the Burchett’s soldier, or is Burchett’s soldier’s son, or—most likely—both. The kid plays at war in a sandbox that soon, through a fine bit of stagecraft, becomes some Middle Eastern Green Zone encampment. A tent appears, and we’re off to war, where we get well and thoroughly harrowed. For much of the show Burchett is spattered in gore and groaning about in his underpants; the boy, meanwhile, on occasion attempts to strangle him. At one point, they both exit, seemingly dead, and that percussive droning and those blasts of brutal light take over for what could be anywhere between five and 10 grueling minutes. Watching this won’t teach you things you didn’t know about soldiering, but it might get you to vow to start packing sunglasses for the theater.
But then comes a wash of sad beauty. Burchett now plays another man undone by war: The father of the soldier recently killed laments as a pair of Marines approach his door with the news. “Bring me back my son,” he insists, again and again, sometimes with hard power and sometimes with raw delicacy. It’s gorgeous. And then, because he is another ex-boy trained to seek out the violent solution, he drafts a mad plan: To blow up their car. The music darkens appropriately. This cycle—of violence and an atonal scraping followed by grand, wounded sublimity—shapes Soldier Songs, right up to a coda that echoes Appalachian Spring. Tough out the terror and you’ll be rewarded, a promise too often denied our actual veterans.