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'Basetrack Live' delves into effects of war

| Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, 7:03 p.m.
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'Basetrack Live', a new multimedia documentary theater work will be performed Oct. 13 at the Byham Theater, Downtown.
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
A scene from 'Basetrack Live'

Seen as “a complicated and sensitive portrayal” of how war affects us all, “Basetrack Live” has been called “perhaps unlike any other theater piece of the last decade.”

Selected as one of the Top 10 performances of 2014 by the New York Times, this new multimedia documentary theater work, which will be performed Oct. 13 at the Byham Theater, Downtown, is based on the experiences of U.S. Marines deployed in Afghanistan and their families waiting for them back home.

“It is not a show that focuses on violence, but instead on the human experience, ... its pathos, macabre humor and the difficulty of waiting at home for someone you love,” says director Anne Hamburger, whose not-for-profit theater company En Garde Arts produced it. “Its humanity, humor and pathos are universal themes that everyone can relate to.”

The Pittsburgh stop is part of an extensive national tour that includes outreach initiatives bringing together veteran and civilian communities. A post-performance panel discussion is planned with members from Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, Steel City Vets, and PA Serves. A representative from Duquesne University's Office of Veterans Services is to serve as mediator.

“Basetrack Live,” for age 12 and older, is an intimate and personal look at the impact of war on the families and caregivers of those who have served.

Audiences experience the difficulty of separating from a loved one, the anxiety provoked by long overseas absence, the angst of not knowing day to day whether or not a family member is safe and the tremendous adjustment families undergo when those who have served come home and begin to reintegrate search for their places in American life.

Hamburger sees the potential audience including general theatergoers, music lovers, those with an interest in documentary work and veterans and their families. “The most powerful experiences I have had on tour have been with our high-school audiences,” she says.

Veterans attending are multi-generational, serving in several wars. “We have had veterans from Vietnam and even World War II come in and be moved by the piece,” the director says.

Two actors portray the real-life characters of A.J. and Melissa Czubai, a young Marine and his wife. The story follows their journey through his deployment to Afghanistan and back home again, including her pregnancy while he is overseas and the injury that sends him home.

Photographs and videos shot by embedded journalists bring to light the stories of other Marines with whom A.J. served in Unit 18, their feelings about deploying and their hopes and dreams for coming home. Additional video footage of Marines and their families after they have returned home documents the transformation of ordinary people fundamentally changed by the extraordinary experience of fighting a war.

“We felt that if one was going to tell the story of war, it had to encompass what it's like to enlist and deploy and return home on both the Marines ... their families who wait for them back home,” Hamburger says.

Music is considered an essential element of the production. “The symphonic score is beautiful and moving,” she says. A video design offers photos of Marines from Afghanistan as well as the landscape and interviews with Marines while serving and their families at home.

“Basetrack Live” took two years to develop.

“We wanted to find the Marines that were in the photographs taken by Teru Kuwayama and his team, and we actually used Facebook to track them down,” Hamburger says.

All text is verbatim from interviews conducted.

“Basetrack Live” was created by Edward Bilous, director of the Center for Innovation in the Arts at the Juilliard School. The inspiration for the project came when Bilous visited an exhibit at Google that featured the work of a group of photojournalists who were embedded in Afghanistan. They included photographer and journalist Kuwayama, who created the first online platform in the history of the war to enable military families to communicate with one another. He launched a Facebook page and a website called Basetrack.

Hamburger first saw Bilous' workshop production at the Juilliard School. Bilous, who also is a professor and composer, collaborated with his wife, music director and composer Michelle Dibucci, to develop a piece combining the work of Kuwayama and other photographers with an original musical score and live acting.

“I was very moved by what I saw, both for its emotional impact and technical ingenuity. I was taken by the documentary, multimedia structure of the piece combined with its extraordinary humanity,” Hamburger says. “We have been very gratified by the life that the production has had and its impact on audiences around the country. “

Veterans love “Basetrack Live” and are very moved by it, she says. “Before they come, there is worry that this will be a (negative) trigger (for them), but that is unfounded, and almost invariably they mention that they wish they had known how good it would be because they would have invited a lot of people,” Hamburger says.

Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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