National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch,” which opened the evening of October 10, is a tough show.
Presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater after a successful run last year at the Broadway Armory, it is billed as a musical, though it’s not clear why.
Recordings of bagpipes do drone on and plenty of marches, patriotic anthems and drinking songs punctuate the program. There is also a heartbreaking ballad, sung by Margaret Bennett, followed by a traditional tune, “The Flowers of the Forest,” played live by a piper after three Black Watch soldiers fall.
Still it is not anything like a musical, even one as horrific as “Sweeney Todd.” It is a powerful and very loud theater piece, which darts from past to present and back again, but centers on the period of time when members of the Black Watch fought with the United States in Iraq.
The 10 players are mainly cast as soldiers, and they speak as soldiers do when with their comrades-in-arms. So expect plenty of profanity.
If you can get over the rude bunk-house humor, however, you’ll find “Black Watch” a very human story about young men that enlist and endanger their lives on foreign fronts.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t what I expected,” says Campbell, the stand-out character played by Ryan Fletcher. Cammy, as he is called, is the regiment’s “golden thread,” with a family connection that goes back to the early days of the elite Black Watch, Scotland’s best-known and oldest regiment.
At one point, Fletcher brilliantly narrates the history of Black Watch battles, as his comrades pick him up and dress him in the uniforms of the past, including, of course, the regimental kilts.
For a show to succeed, we must care about the characters, and those Scotsmen give us lads so human, so frightened, so angry, so endearingly comical that we are with them every step of the way.
Pride is the currency of the Black Watch and in the end, the boys tell why they are fighting.
“Not for my country,” says Campbell, since they are miles from Scotland.
Then voices emerge, one by one, from this band of brothers:
“I fight for my regiment,” says the first. “I fight for my company,” another responds. “I fight for my platoon,” replies the third, and the last declares “I fight for my mates.”
And that is probably all we need to know.
This show is not for everyone, but within it, there are revelations worth glimpsing.
“Black Watch” runs through October 21 at the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway, Chicago. Valet parking is available for $12. Call 312-595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.