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05.21.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Shannon Stowe

Code Red

City Lights snaps audiences to attention with red-hot production of 'A Few Good Men'

By Marianne Messina


DIRECTED BY Kit Wilder, City Lights Theater Company's extraordinary new production, A Few Good Men, is as taut and polished as a dress-inspection. Wise guy, junior-grade officer and silver-spoon-fed lawyer Danny Kaffee (Thomas Gorrebeeck) is assigned to defend two young soldiers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the '80s—a case Kaffee and everyone else expects to be a slam dunk, guilty-with-plea-bargain affair. But then senior-ranking Lt. Commander Galloway (Nichole Y. Hamilton) insinuates herself into the case. In her first visit with the defendants, Galloway discovers that they might have been operating under an order, known as "Code Red," to take punitive action against the murder victim. An extralegal practice, the Code Red question sends the characters and the play on a journey of defining, allying and clashing codes.

Galloway, Kaffee and his sidekick, Lt. j.g. Sam Weinberg (Josh Sigal), find a whole new culture awaiting them at GTMO: Marines, on "the fence" between American interests and hostile Cubans. Kaffee and GTMO's Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Michael J. West) embody the culture clash—remote strategists vs. front-line fighters, grunts vs. elites. As Jessep quips to Kaffee, "Every time we gotta go fight some place, you boys always give us a ride."

Wilder chooses to immerse us in the front-line culture. With rigid stances, snapped salutes, Saving Private Ryan–style music interrupted by marching, drill chants or a crash of drums, Wilder maintains what is almost a sense of cult. During scenes that occur stateside, we see no bright, polished floors, no maze of halls for the military-justice complex. The tables that represent courtrooms are the same as those in Jessep's GTMO office with the same chain-link and barbed wire of "the fence" looming overhead.

Gorrebeeck, Hamilton and West make Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and, yes, even Jack Nicholson from the 1992 film (also written by the playwright Aaron Sorkin) look downright stale. Skewed and snide, West plays the cult-leaderish, literature-quoting Jessep with chilling realism. He shares his most intimate exchanges with a desktop gumball machine. The colonel argues that protecting the country demands the ruthlessness to acknowledge that the death of a washout soldier-in-training saves lives in the long run. In the code of priorities—"unit, corps, God, country"—there are no individuals. Hamilton's Galloway handles her comeback lines to the continuous sexual harassment like a precision weapon, which had the audience hooting and cheering.

Over a large cast of important characters, many were memorable—Andrew Moore's silent defiance as the lance corporal for whom the code meant more than jail time; Dirk Leatherman's mild-seeming yet unapologetic doctor; Josh Sigal's comic relief as affable family man Sam. Audiences should prepare in advance for this production by setting their auditory processors on high-speed. These characters careen through sophisticated exchanges with the crisp certainty of a private's "Ma'am, yes, Ma'am!" From the internal comments of characters to a host of historical examples to the hushed tension in the City Lights audience opening night, the play demonstrates how instinctively humans resonate with the concept of a code, the sanctity of something bigger than oneself, even within a framework that celebrates individualism.


A FEW GOOD MEN, a City Lights Theater Company production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2 (June 8 and 15) and 7pm (May 25 and June 1) through June 15 at City Lights, 429 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $25–$40. (408.295.4200)


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