This marvelously complex and absorbing performance began simply, with a map unfolded flat and projected onto a screen. A voiceover delivered the broader historical points necessary to understand the beginning of the First World War, all the way up to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which was portrayed by rolling a toy car across the relevant portions of central Europe. Once the action left the map and moved to the larger tables that had been set up around the Campbell Hall stage, mounds of dirt, push brooms, toy soldiers, and sprigs of parsley coalesced into remarkably convincing compositions, images that, projected above the people making them, served as the central focus of this hour-long journey through the trenches, landscapes, and contradictions of World War I.
Composer and foley artist Arthur Sauer drove the performance forward from his station at a battery of equipment that included high-tech digital samplers and drum pads along with low-tech noisemakers like a sheet of metal and a box of matches. Entering into the stories told by pre-recorded voices on the soundtrack, one tended to forget about Sauer until noticing that, during a gun battle for instance, the uncannily accurate sound of machine gunfire was coming not from a recording but rather from Sauer pounding a digital drum pad with wooden sticks.
The real letters from people who lived through the war that formed the script were superb and poignant, and still capable of producing shock and surprise. There’s no single narrative thread to The Great War, but there are whole episodes, like the torpedoing of a British ship as seen from underwater by the crew of a German sub, or the booby-trapping of a bottle of wine as experienced by a crew of British soldiers searching an abandoned bunker. The sheer visual inventiveness of this amazing production made the hour fly. The objects on these tables may be small, but Hotel Modern is onto something big.