by David Lally · November 11, 2014
Vietnam… through my lens, a new solo work written and performed by Stu Richel, could not be more perfectly timed to coincide with the month that we celebrate our war veterans.
Mr. Richel is no stranger to solo shows having previously written and performed Mortal Decisions, a Diary of the Donner Party, Theodore Judah and the Transcontinental Railroad and Everyone’s War. I have known Stu for several years and I’m almost embarrassed to say that this is the first time I have had the pleasure to see him perform and I have to say the performer is utterly charming and at ease and the writer’s choice of life material to mine is terrific. Not that there are any adventurous stories of derring-do or heroism. But in his simple storytelling style, Stu can make the ordinary seem extraordinary and the everyday seem heroic. His words and pictures bring to life a palpable sense of what the country’s pulse was at the time of Vietnam. It is the very ordinariness of a civilian going off to war that makes the story so interesting.
Now, let me not undersell his experiences. Every story is a fascinating and sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes heartbreaking, tale. What makes it interesting is that Stu not only plays a part in his own story, he IS the story.
After a brief opening credit sequence, which was very filmic, Stu joins us on stage to begin his hour and twenty minute journey. The way he swoops in and commands the stage he has made it clear he will be our tour guide. But this is no bombastic performance. Instead, Stu seems like a most unlikely candidate to go to war. But it’s 1967 and there is a draft. And so, along we go, to join Stu on his journey.
I felt the first ten to fifteen minutes or so were a little stiff and tentative but by the time the first laugh comes (and there will be plenty more to come) Stu relaxed into his performance more, even acknowledging and responding to comments from the audience, and in a sequence where he dons his old army coat, an acknowledgement of having trouble buttoning the buttons in rehearsal and the first previews. I would like to see more of that relaxed playfulness with the audience creep into the performance. The fact that we are there in the room taking this journey with Stu makes us as much a part of the show as he is. That recognition from Stu makes all the difference.
While talking with Stu post-performance I learned that this is a new concept to him. As a veteran of interactive shows (including improvisation and interactive dinner theatre) this came as a surprise to me. Stu said he is used to playing a part on stage and sticks to the script for fear that interaction with the audience will throw him off. A viable fear when you are the solo performer, to be sure, but I would posit that that relaxed interplay between performer and audience really humanizes the show and that endears us to the performer even more.
As for the technical aspects of the show, the desk and two chairs and two army trunks that make up the set are used to great effect. The photo montages and pictures that accompany Stu’s story by Michael Lee Stever very definitely enhance the story and the lighting by Elaine Wong is terrific. Even the music choices from the house music to the actual songs used in the show add to the atmosphere.
I am not familiar with the work of Linda S. Nelson, the director, but I can say I was very impressed with the polished product I saw. The direction is natural and fluid and Stu is solid in setting clearly each scene, even taking on some of the other “characters” he encounters along his journey. These aren’t full-blown characters in costume that you would see in a John Leguizamo show. These are merely sketches: Brief sentences and some back and forth dialogue that Stu slips into and out of so effortlessly and add flavor to an already rich piece of work.
So why not extend the celebration of Veteran’s Day and take in Vietnam… through my lens?