All Quiet on the Western Front at Prime Stage Theatre | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

All Quiet on the Western Front at Prime Stage Theatre

It’s demanding, it’s chaotic, and it works

Connor McNelis in All Quiet on the Western Front, at Prime Stage
Connor McNelis in All Quiet on the Western Front, at Prime Stage

The most difficult trope to evoke artistically is sincerity. Miss by just a little and you slip precipitously into sentimentality. It’s the difference between Shakespeare, and a Subaru commercial.

Prime Stage Theatre Company’s production of All Quiet on the Western Front is sincere, and never slips. The show, based on Robin Kingsland’s artful 2006 adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, commemorates the 100th anniversary of America entering World War I, and is part of the company’s Humanity in the Face of Adversity season.

This is a tremendous ensemble effort, with most of the actors playing several parts, as well as switching genders. It’s demanding, it’s chaotic, and it works.

The drama is narrated in play-by-play style by the young German protagonist Paul (the impressive Connor McNelis), who evolves from naïve, patriotic student to seasoned soldier at the speed of war. It’s a Hamlet-like role, his character on stage for most of the two-hour run-time — sometimes stepping into things, sometimes stepping back and commenting, and even stepping outside of himself, as in one poignant scene when he tries to comfort a dead soldier’s mother.

It’s like seeing a soul exist outside of its body, and director Scott P. Calhoon achieves this and many other brilliant conceits without resorting to the gratuitous clichés so prevalent in theater today.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this performance is that virtually all of the effects are produced with technology that existed in 1917. The effects crew is stationed above the stage and executes Foley enhancements like an old-fashioned radio program. This makes the sounds much more vibrant and disturbing than if they were recordings —from thundering bombs to clattering machine guns. Even the popping sizzle of lice being burned over a candle seems real.

Johnmichael Bohach’s set and Jason Via’s props offer the kind of thrilling immersion we rarely get to experience, enhanced by J.R. Shaw’s lighting and Angela Baughman’s sound (the descending flares are sublime).

“Our life is an endless ending of life,” Paul observes, poetically, as he navigates the war with his young comrades. This is a show the whole family will appreciate. Sincerely.