'Black Watch' makes triumphant return to Chicago

In the 18 months since the profane warrior Celts of the "Black Watch" were last spied in Chicago at the Broadway Armory, Osama bin Laden has been killed, the 2003 war in Iraq has receded further into the shifting sands of history and the careers of director John Tiffany and movement specialist Steven Hoggett, who gave this show its distinctive gestalt, have exploded on Broadway thanks to the sublime musical "Once."

The young Scottish cast of "Black Watch" is also mostly different from the last stateside tour of duty. And it's certainly true that as this international hit show from the National Theatre of Scotland gets further from its first production at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006 and becomes more of a profitable, perpetually touring product and the province of staff directors and the like, inorganic dangers lurk. I can smell 'em waiting in the wings. That said, this new cast is honoring its predecessors (and a few, like current standout Chris Starkie, have been doing this march for a while and staying sharp).

Never simplistic, jingoistic or bathetic — although certainly patriotic in its proud Scottish identity and its determination to honor that no-nonsense national character — "Black Watch" (presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater) remains one of the few really excellent contemporary shows to explore life in the military.

This is the kind of rare piece that will appeal to progressive thinkers but that a conservative veteran from another army or era would instantly recognize as striving for the truth about what it feels like to be stuck in harm's way, lost in a place where the recruitment slogans and the heroic expectations hit hard against a much messier reality and trying to do your best.

Simply put, "Black Watch" is a clear-eyed look at one of the great regiments of the world, typified as much by its gallows humor as the proud tradition of sending off to glory several generations of sons of the Fife. From its cleverly sarcastic opening, which plays with the audience's expectations, it's a very shrewdly toned creation that gets to have its Scotch pie and eat it too.

On the one hand, "Black Watch," which is performed here, stadium-style, in an Edgewater venue that seats nearly 700 people and has a long military tradition all its own, is a genuine spectacle that revels in its own theatricality and comes replete with music, marching, explosive effects and its own piper.

On the other hand, it's a very self-aware deconstruction of the very drums-and-pipers military tattoos that I used to get taken to as a kid at the Edinburgh Festival. It very much wants to be about the life of the grunts on the ground, and its success in that endeavor, while simultaneously embodying and celebrating the traditions of its subject regiment, is one of the many things that make it both admirable and very exciting to watch.

The writer, Gregory Burke, hit on the just the right paradox to hang his show. Just as the Black Watch was in the middle of one of the most dangerous and controversial assignments in its storied history — in the so-called Triangle of Death between Fallujah and Karbala, Iraq — plans were afoot back home to either gut or disband the independent regiment as part of a bureaucratically oriented realignment.

But Burke isn't so much interested in the politics of all that — wild as such a disconnect must have been for those serving and risking their lives in Iraq at the time — as in what military tradition really means in the grand scheme of things. After all, as one of the soldiers in the show sardonically points out, generations of fathers and sons went down the pit, and that didn't stop the mines from closing.

Mines, of course, aren't in the business of defending freedom. And on this second viewing of "Black Watch," I was struck not only by how organically Hoggett makes soldiers dance, without us realizing he is doing so, but by how well the show captures existential themes.

You might think of the show as akin to Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage," only with a whole lot more sympathy for the military tradition.

As I headed out toward the St. Andrews pub across the street, smelling shepherd's pie, I was mulling a picture of a great old regiment from a grand old democracy (with its own Second City-type issues, writ large), marching stoically through time, fighting similar wars in many of the same countries hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart, solving little but standing up for all that is Scotland.

cjones5@tribune.com

When: Through Oct. 21

Where: The Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Tickets: $38-$52 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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