Memorial Day Weekend Memories with The Birthday Boys at the Texas Theatre

30 05 2011

This memorial day weekend I had the honor to witness a wonderful play that showcases all the qualities that make us remember, the men and women who served for our nation, so well.  With our hearts open and our flags raised I’d like to share with you this unique, bold, and fun look at three Marines.  Here is our final look at Aaron Kozak’s The Birthday Boys which ended its theatrical run at the Texas Theatre on Sunday.

I’m not sure why I took this photo while racing over to see the play (for a second time) on Saturday early evening.  But after looking at it over and over again I realized something interesting.  It showcases Dallas old “staple” and the new “staple” look.  Our downtown skyline has always been highlighted by the Reunion Tower.  Hell the tower out lasted the old arena and damn near everything around that area.  It’s been a stark and obvious Dallas-centric building that has become a staple landmark.  Well I’m not sure how much I like our new “St. Louis Inspired” arch, but it is being looked at as the new staple landmark (especially for the southside of town).  Well if you take the Texas Theatre and realize it is a perfect mixture of old landmark legacy and brand new innovation.  So I think the photo is fitting in discussing the first multi-media live play performed at the Texas Theatre in almost 70 years.  The fact that the theatre can be transformed into “film viewing” mode straight into “play viewing” mode in under 15 minutes.  It’s impressive as hell to see a small group of Texas Theatre employees, friends, and one Eric Steele (seriously I have a new found respect for the talented fella who dragged huge wooden set pieces off the stage!) pull off the quick transformation.   So it seems most fitting that it’s one of Eric’s oldest theater friends who would bring his play to the Theatre.

Aaron Kozak wrote and directed The Birthday Boys from stories about his marine grandfather’s heroic days in WWII and a question about what he’d personally do during times of war.  Aaron told me how important it was for real life Marines to see this play, since he realizes it lacks the truth behind certain mannerisms, lines, and military reality.  Saturday’s performance had an awesome gentlemen, in the audience, who helped with one of Trevor David’s lines from the play.  In the scene Trevor’s character Lance calls himself an “American Hero”, well the military vet had some advice for that line.

Military Vet talking with Nando Betancur who played Colin in the play.

The play is spread over two acts in which the characters are blindfolded and bound for every scene until they are at least stricken of their blindfolds in the final shocking sequence.  Even during the intermission of the play the fellas are stranded on stage to just “wait” until the second act begins.  But don’t think that its  a play without movement.  On a stage roughly 40 feet across and 20 feet deep the fellas log roll, “scoot-ze” (actual line from the play), and are tossed around by their captors.  They don’t have many places to post up or relax and so they have to rely on their endurance as they battle through each hair-raising scene.  In fact Trevor David suffered a pretty nasty neck gash on Saturday evening’s performance.

To the point that Trevor had his sister rub his neck with some alcohol right after the end of the performance.  Trevor’s character Lance goes through some of the more violent sequences.

That gun ends up in his mouth for easily the most heart-wrenching scene up till the final “head cutting off” sequence.  Each of the three marines goes through their own “act of heroism”.  Trevor David’s Character Lance survives the above gun assault while James Ryen’s Chester character has to deal with a scary electric shock scene and  Nando Betancur’s Colin has to endure that cutting of the head sequence with a total lack of support.  Ali Saam’s educated Mahdi Militia “Leader” comes across as funny, witty, and downright spooky.  On any other occasion you could really befriend this guy, but we’re forced to see him abuse, mock and threaten our beloved Birthday Boys.  His continued prodding about a secret weapons cache leads to one of the more comforting scenes when Lance finally forgives Colin for his cowardly act that proceeded the play.  The premise of the Colin Character harps back to Aaron’s fears that he’d “crack” under times of war and leads to the play’s ultimate question, What is a hero?  Is it the physically imposing Chester who is battling to stay alive for his wife and new born baby son at home?  Is it the brash and humorous Lance who takes us on some of the more hard hitting dialogue sequences?  Or is the so called “shithead coward” Colin who for the majority of the play comes across as a whining, heartless, coward?  In the end all three men go through their own heroic acts that helps lead them to their own salvation.  Even with the twist ending that puts the whole premise of the play on edge, you can’t help but harp back to that question.   Aaron’s ability to comfort the audience with funny dialogue allows for those “heroic” scenes to play so much more passionately and real.  I don’t think I would have had as much fear for Lance, when Ali puts the gun in his mouth, if I hadn’t witnessed his brash verbal assaults on the entire rest of the cast.  His boldness to mock the Iraqi captors is just so ballsy an approach that when his life is really endangered you feel that tension.  You expect him to not make it through!

James Ryen (Chester), Nando Betancur (Colin), Michael Burnett (Captor), Matt Altobelli (Captor), Drew Farmer (not in photo – third Captor) and Ali Saam (The Leader).

In the end the performances by Nando, James and Trevor are so powerful and real.  It amazes me how much information we learn about these three men.  We start to not only know their personalities but we start to predict their responses.  Easily one of my favorite scenes in the play is when Lance confronts Colin about being a “shithead coward”.  Earlier in the play we notice Colin’s character opening up to Chester about certain things, including Colin’s crush on a girl named Mandy.  Well Lance berates and chides Colin about leaving him behind, but he doesn’t really hit a nerve until he starts talking about Mandy.  You see Lance and Colin play best friends who share a birthday, thus the title of the play.  They have a mutual friend named Mandy that Colin has a crush on and thru Lance’s verbal attack we learn Mandy has more of a relationship with Lance.  Its a powerful scene in which we’re not certain what Lance is getting at, until he starts talking about undressing Mandy.  The more details he gives the more the audience, Chester and finally Colin come to realize that Lance is not just “friends” with Mandy.   The final reveal of their sexual relationship leads to the first real “anger” we see in Colin.  Its an amazingly hard scene to watch.  You sympathize with Chester who sees the “reveal” moments before and just wants Lance to stop.  But the actual moment when Colin realizes that Lance and Amanda (not Mandy but Amanda) have been intimate is just so heart-wrenching.  Overall the fact that these three guys could pull off such an emotionally draining and bi-polar like dialogue scequence showcases their talent.

A terrific play to showcase the honor, brotherhood and integrity behind the Marines.  Happy Memorial Day.

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