Heroes – Silly in Senility

Heroes is a play put on by The FOG theatre company, about three World War I veterans who live at a a retirement home for veterans and are each troubled by ailments both mental and physical, remnants of both the war and the life afterwards.  The three old men have found a cranky, sometimes hostile, but ultimately friendly relationship with each other, living out their days sitting out on a porch with their constant mutual companion, a statue of a dog.

The three men are each unique examples of a life of both intense hardship and years of boredom and unfulfilled dreams.  Philippe is the soft-spoken narcoleptic, who constantly passes out due to the piece of German shrapnel that’s been left lodged in his skull.  Gustave is the cranky and immovable crackpot, who still believes that he’s the intimidating soldier he once was, able to take on the world and break it over his knee.  Henri is ostensibly the sanest of the three but is perhaps too emotionally vulnerable, especially when exposed to an uncensored Gustave.

Each of them interprets their lives at the residence in entirely different ways, exaggerating the events of their lives to a level of military importance.  Eventually they come to the decision that their time at the residence has come to an end and it’s time to leave.  However, for these three, coming to a decision one day is one thing, but seeing it through the next is something else entirely.

The presentation of Heroes was one of its strongest characters.  The set – being the porch the men sit on every day – is a beautiful set.  Stone pillars and stairs, the statue of the dog, along with proper lighting and sound design really sells the sense of place.  The three chairs that sit on the stage facing the audience were almost constantly occupied, as the three old men took to sitting most of the time.  But it is a testament to the skill of the actors to admit that this never got tedious.  The characters are played so well and their personalities are so captivating, if not always completely likeable, that just seeing them bark at each other leaning across their chairs is entertaining comedy in itself.

And Heroes is a comedy, which is certainly not the expected genre to find a play about retired war veterans.  But Heroes is very funny.  It’s a virtue of playing a senile old man that you can pace each scene as long as possible so the timing of the comedy is held hilariously long.  It’s a play where I’d often start laughing at something that is genuinely funny, and then realize that I’m laughing at a senile old man who is so mentally unstable he is vividly hallucinating.  Which only makes me laugh harder, because then I start laughing at the fact that these guys are actually playing that out for comedy.

There are long moments during the play in which nothing really happens – the men sit in their chairs, read the paper, nap, or talk about nothing at all important.  But the characters are so few and so bold in the context of the setting that it is still engrossing.

The FOG is an acronym that stands for Four Old Gentlemen.  The actors who play Philippe, Gustave, and Henri are all veterans of stage acting.  William Samples, who plays Philippe, has been acting for 40 years, doing plays for companies like Black Bird Theatre and Western Conspiracy.  John Innes has been acting for over 50 years across the US and Canada, and his portrayal of Gustave in Heroes was not the first time he’s worked with Michael Dobbin, who played Henri, and whom he first met in the 60’s.  Dobbin has managed theatre companies for over 40 years, and together, all three actors are just as much veterans as the men they portray.

Though there are only three actors, the FOG is supposed to be four old gentlemen.  The fourth is a combination of stage designer Glenn MacDonald and director Terence Kelly.  The production is therefore small, but it knows how to use its parts well.

Heroes was originally a French play by Gerald Sibleyras, here translated by English playwright Tom Stoppard.  The only remnants of the play’s French heritage are in the names of its places and characters, which is only slightly off-putting when paired with the actor’s curious English accents.  However, the dialogue is smart, the acting solid, and the translation smooth enough that these oddities are barely noticeable during the play’s hour-long run-time.

Heroes will be playing at the PAL Theatre at 581 Cardero Street until September 30th.