"As Far As We Know" on the Fringe

On Saturday night my friend, Evangelina, invited me to a play showing as part of the currently underway NYC Fringe Festival, in which her husband, Michael Batelli, was an actor. I’ve never been to the Fringe Festival before, and haven’t been to a dramatic play in a while, so it was quite a treat.

As Far As We Know” is a fictional re-imagining of the true story of an Army reservist who went missing in Iraq in April 2004 after his convoy was ambushed en route to Baghdad. Five days later, Al-Jazeera TV broadcast a videotape showing that 20-year-old reservist (whose real name is Keith Maupin but is here given the name Jake Larkin) surrounded by masked men. Six weeks later, another videotape emerged, showing, possibly, some kind of execution, though the tape was of such poor quality that the Army deemed it “inconclusive” both of whether it indeed showed a slaying, and whether, if so, it was actually that of Maupin. Unlike with all other military persons, journalists, and missionaries shown in similar tapes, Maupin’s body was never recovered, and there has been no word from him or his captors ever since. The Army has since promoted Maupin three times, in abstentia, and his family and friends in his hometown of Batavia, Ohio, continue hopefully to await his return.

I’m embarrassed to admit, but, somehow I’d never heard of Maupin. It’s impossible of course not to find his story immensely powerful and poignant, but I was also intrigued by the fact that, to this day, nearly three years later, there’s been no closure. Captors have been so up front with other kidnappings; either they were oddly out of step on this one, Maupin is still being held, or as the play hints, there was some kind of Army coverup. According to the play the ambush was partly the result of information sent by a Private to an incorrect email address, and Larkin’s drill sergeant, who later left the Army disillusioned, tells Larkin’s sister she believes the troops received inadequate training, ultimately confiding that she feels partly responsible.

The story was, interestingly, told in non-linear fragments and used mixed media (videoclips –both actual footage and tapes filmed by the actors — were interspersed with the staging). My only problem was that I found it a little too unwieldy and lacking in focus, which is, I’d assume, wont to happen when something is directed by the entire ensemble instead of a single person. It was, by turns, about Larkin’s family members and how they dealt with the situation, about the politics of the possible Army coverup, and about the Army personnel assigned to assist the family and act as go-between between family, military and media. Kelly Van Zile, who played Larkin’s sister, was a powerhouse of an actress and she really made me feel the sister’s pain as well as her internalized conflict between anger at and desperate need to believe in the military.

But it’s pretty obvious how the sister is going to feel. I thought a more dramatically interesting focus would be the young female Army captain charged, in her first assignment, with acting as liaison between the Army and the family. At the beginning of her portion of the story, she is shown listening to a tape dictating the proper way to break horrible news to a family: succinctly and with restrained compassion. With the Larkin family, of course, since there is no such “news” but only indefinite puzzlement, her job is near impossible, and infinite in duration (the Army moves her into a hotel down the street from the Larkins). The most powerful, most human scenes are those where the sister’s pain permeates the captain’s continuous attempt at a tough exterior and the captain gives in — first allowing the sister to keep hold of an all-important cell phone giving her instant access to the Pentagon (and on-the-spot news of Larkin), then writing personal checks to pay the distraught family’s utility bills, and eventually, against firm orders, allowing the family to attend an emotional homecoming for the soldiers returning from Larkin’s unit.

Glitches aside, though, it was a very compelling play and I’m definitely going to keep my ears open now for info about Maupin.

I’m late in getting this post up seeing as how it’s now mid-week, but kind of coincidental given that I received an email today from one of our servicemen, Paul, from Stamford, Connecticut, now serving in Iraq. Paul tells me that he’s enjoying learning some salsa dancing over there. Thanks for emailing, Paul. Take care of yourself, and please come home safe and sound :) Oh, and of course please let us know how your salsa is coming along!

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