Rarely produced nowadays, preeminent American playwright David Rabe wrote “Streamers” as the third part of his Vietnam Trilogy : The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones and Streamers. It caused quite an uproar when it premiered in 1976, with its pervasive male frontal nudity and graphic, alarming violence, not as much in evidence in the current production in Farmers Branch. Set in a Virginia Army barracks in 1965, four soldiers : Richie, Roger, Billy and Carlysle wait helplessly to be dispatched to combat in the Vietnam War. Richie is an unapologetic gay man (quite a rare bird in 1976 or 1965) Roger is a congenial African American, Billy is a white, Midwestern straight boy and Carlysle is a seething, febrile, unstable African American man whose sexual orientation is unclear.
Rarely (if ever) has the American theatre depicted the raw, frail, volcanic ferocity of what it means to be an American male in a culture so electrified by homophobia. When you’re taught there’s nothing worse than same-gender sexual attachment (it fractures your male identity) then gays manifest your worst nightmares about yourself. Being queer is the disease no man can escape, because you must keep disproving it, over and over again. Rabe tosses four terrified men/boys into a cauldron where they simmer, stoke and stew, not knowing when they will be shipped out to (very possibly) imminent death. Added to this devastating mix is the question of sexual identity, raised by Richie, the urbane, gay soldier from New York.
Richie is in some ways more enigmatic than Carlysle. You would think that if he truly cared for Billy as much as he implies, he’d quit antagonizing him with mock flirtations and barely veiled insinuations. It’s not just that Richie is inappropriately flamboyant for his surroundings (Gay soldiers have understood the value of discretion for centuries) it’s his confrontational demeanor. Still,, straight soldiers have a reputation for flaunting their breeder conquests when it’s only guys around, so it’s not easy to decipher Richie’s motives. Even without the profoundly rattling questions that every man must ask about his genitals, the grim reaper’s shadow makes the air so tense (that and Rabe’s rough, merciless poetry) we are ready to leap from our seats at the slightest noise.
Phallic symbols abound. Knives, snakes, streamers (parachutes that won’t open) . Carlysle takes Roger and Billy on a bender that culminates at a brothel. They return to the barracks still drunken and exhilarated. Richie, who has previously been repulsed by Carlysle is now drawn to him, but their quarters are too small, and Billy refuses to look the other way while the two get busy. Their brazen behavior infuriates Billy and from there, everything goes sideways. The symbolism Rabe uses is so embedded in content and plot it’s a lot to process in one sitting. Ironically Richie’s presence and provocation turns their home into a kind of tinderbox. There are those who have made viable arguments for Streamers being being virulently homophobic, and that’s possible, I suppose, but what Rabe has managed to capture on stage is the rage, hysteria and paranoia we all feel as men, in a world where anyone might feel entitled to confiscate your manhood.
L.I.P. Service Presents “Streamers” playing August 13th-29th. 2015. The Firehouse Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers branch, Texas 75234. 972-620-3747. www.thefirehousetheatre.