STOW — A German reconnaissance plane is circling overhead when suddenly an American tank emerges from a grove of trees and begins to lumber across the contested airfield. The tank immediately draws heavy fire from German gunners, and soon smoke is pouring from its sides. Then there’s another hit, and flames burst from the tank treads.
Welcome back to World War II — the war we can’t seem to get enough of — and to the world of historical reenactments, which just might be one of the hottest forms of theater around. Its mass appeal was dramatically underscored over the weekend, when more than 5,000 spectators flocked here for the “Battle for the Airfield,’’ two days of reenactments modeled on several battles that occurred in the weeks after D-Day.
Theater critics like me focus primarily on productions that feature professional actors strutting their stuff on indoor stages. But for many people, “theater’’ might be a more fluid experience, encompassing outdoor performances that range from walking tours led by costumed guides on the Freedom Trail to medieval revelry at King Richard’s Faire to the widely popular pseudocombat of reenactments.
These amateur theatricals could teach the professional companies a thing or two about stagecraft, narrative momentum, and creating a sense of high-stakes urgency. But battle reenactments inevitably raise nagging questions about the repackaging of war as entertainment. (Questions, by the way, that the movie industry has blithely ignored for decades.)
It’s true that the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation that organized the World War II battle reenactments on its grounds over the weekend, was conscientious about framing them as history lessons. During his narration of the “Battle for the Airfield,’’ founder Robert F. Collings took pains to emphasize the horrors of World War II.
“War is terrible,’’ he said at the end of the Sunday morning battle, speaking over a public-address system. “We do not want to have any future wars.’’
But it was also clear that some spectators were there simply for the bang-bang, like the young man who rushed past me, pumping his fist and shouting “Yeah!’’ as the battle raged, or the other twentysomething guy who gushed “That was cool!’’ after the battle.
A seminar on the origins, strategy, and tactics of World War II would not have attracted the hordes of spectators, including many families, who attended the reenactments here on Saturday and Sunday. (Hunter Chaney, the foundation’s director of marketing, said it was the largest crowd since the foundation began staging World War II reenactments five years ago).
Those qualms aside, it’s worth examining what these reenactments do well in purely theatrical terms. Here’s one thing that leaped out at me: how assiduously the World War II reenactors made the audience feel as if they had a stake in the proceedings.
Theater artists talk a lot about getting audiences invested in the work and about dissolving the “fourth wall’’ between performers and the people in the seats. By those standards, the “Battle for the Airfield’’ reenactment walked the walk. Spectators were invited “backstage,’’ as it were, allowed to roam freely through the encampments, Allied and German. We got an up-close look at what were, in effect, the sets and the props — olive-green military tents, armored fighting vehicles, tripod-mounted machine guns, field artillery (almost all of it authentic equipment from World War II). And we got to converse with the “cast’’: the uniform-wearing reenactors who would be locked in pitched battle a little while later.
To be sure, this could lead to moments of cognitive dissonance, as when I found myself in conversation Sunday morning in the German camp with John Mick and Arnie Boyer, a couple of amiable fellows who were wearing the black uniforms of the Waffen SS. “We won yesterday,’’ said Mick, 57, of Old Bridge, N.J. “Today we die a horrible death.’’ (The outcome of the battles was different, depending on the day.)
When it came to the performance itself, the reenactment was a clash of men and metal that landed with visceral impact. Its presentation was a model of precision, clarity, dramatic compression, and skillful blocking. When two German officers raced by on horseback, or when jeeps, troop carriers, tanks, and other armored vehicles criss-crossed the field, guns blazing, the action was clearly visible to the entire crowd.
Inevitably, the acting was broadly exaggerated, with individual performances consisting of not much more than shooting (blanks), running, yelling, and falling on the battlefield. But the reenactors managed to triumph in one area where professional actors consistently fail. The hand-to-hand combat was quite convincing, a far cry from most fights onstage, where the onset of fisticuffs almost always results in the collapse of verisimilitude. Once they broke through the German defenses, the Allied soldiers exhibited considerable ferocity as they simulated the pummeling of the enemy with their rifle butts.
Start to finish, the battle lasted about 20 minutes. I’ll be honest: With review deadlines looming and onstage action languishing inside Boston theaters, many’s the time I’ve longed for that kind of brevity.
After the smoke had cleared from the battlefield and the reenactors slain in combat had gotten back on their feet, I spoke with Rich Logan, 51, of Southbridge. Here’s hoping he was expressing the majority view when it came to the many parents in attendance with their kids. Nodding toward his young son, Logan said: “They play all these games all the time — you click on a mouse and people drop dead — but they have no idea of the reality. I’m hoping that by taking him to something like this, he’ll see that the reality isn’t as clean as the games.’’