One of tragedies of war is that young people, whose lives are theoretically ahead of them, are the ones put into harm's way. The youth of the cast of Red Badge of Courage adds texture to the new co-production by 7 Stages and Kennesaw State University. Apart from Atlanta acting veteran Bryan Mercer, the ensemble consists of one senior and three juniors from KSU, who are probably about as old as many of the troops who fought in the Civil War, if not a little older.
In their adaptation of Stephen Crane's classic 1895 novel, Michael Haverty and Jane Barnette emphasize the terrifying, often surreal perspective of the soldiers on the front line, particularly Private Henry Fleming (Josh Brook). Their stage version of Red Badge of Courage can be dense and difficult to unpack, but provides a fascinatingly feverish theatrical experience that unfolds in less than an hour.
The production literally evokes the fog of war by filling 7 Stages' black box theater with clouds before curtain time (the smoke machine may have been working a little too well on opening night). Dominating the small performing space is a large, gray circular opening that suggests the audience is looking down the barrel of a gigantic cannon - and perhaps that the Union troops are merely its fodder. Before hostilities break out, Henry and his fellow raw recruits speculate over whether they'll show bravery or run in terror when the shots begin.
The play follows Henry over a couple days on and around the battlefield, where he sees death firsthand and experiences both cowardice and valor. The action feels essentially plotless, however, seguing from one dreamlike episode to the next. Badge draws on the interior monologue style of Crane's novel and literalizes the symbolism with puppetry and stop-motion animation designed by Kristin Haverty. The play's introductory image shows a puppet in a Union uniform floating in the air, as if captured in slow-motion following an explosion. When the shelling starts, Henry remembers seeing a giant snake at a circus, and a giant serpentine image fills the screen above the actors like a symbol of warfare's wild malignity.
The production's most conspicuous conceptual touch may be the casting of women as male characters. Perhaps Haverty and Barnette want to comment on masculinity as a social construct, or the increased involvement of women in contemporary combat zones. Most of the male characters played by the actresses seem like exaggerations of pugnacious boyishness, apart from Megan Jance's haunted-looking, soft-spoken soldier. Nevertheless, the actresses' moments of war-time fear and pain seem more acute than if they'd been played by men.
With complicated imagery and plenty of moments of top-of-the-voice screaming, Red Badge of Courage can feel like "art theater" at its most forbidding. Audiences with vivid memories of the source novel will probably get the most out of the production, which is comparable to a jazz improvisation on an old standard: The better you know the original, the more likely you'll appreciate the variations.
The Red Badge of Courage. Through March 23. 7 Stages. 1105 Euclid Ave. 8 p.m., Thu. - Sat., 7 p.m., Sun. (2 p.m., March 15 and 22). $10-$20. 404-523-7647. www.7stages.org