The mass death and destruction of WWI has been captured in novels, movies, musicals, and even reality TV shows. But as far as we know, theatre collective Hotel Modern is the first to recreate the battlefields of the War to End All wars using uniformed dolls, miniature props, toy soldiers, and a lot of dirt. And they do it well, presenting a solid overview of the 1914-18 conflict with rousing energy and ingenuity.

That said, if you’re looking for a night of frivolous theatre don’t come to this show. The initial pleasure of watching little models projected onto a big screen soon fades, and the storytelling takes a grueling turn as the nations of Europe scrap with one another. Despite a few lighthearted moments near the beginning, this is a very dark tale that obliquely states “war is hell.”

The Great War opens with a group of heads, their faces lined with age. As these wizened visages are videotaped, a live feed throws the image onto the large screen. Chattering voices help to suggest that these are veterans reminiscing about the war.

Next, a history lesson: a map is spread out in front of the camera, and a narrator runs through the causes of the war. The scene culminates with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, with the murder weapon effectively revealed from beneath a black gloved hand. Then we switch to the Western Front, where verdant farmland is trampled by German troops. They’re cut down by voluminous machine gun fire; the narrator declares that killing them “felt good.”

The war escalates and the bodies pile up. There are cannon blasts, sniper shots, a town in flames, booby traps and tanks rolling over maimed bodies. The death toll is horrible and the protagonist, a hapless soldier named Prospert, spends most of his time depressed or fearing for his life. Even though we never see his face or find out how he got roped into the war, we get a fleeting glimpse of what life was like for a common infantryman: bloody and muddy.

As the members of Theatre Modern switch from one diorama to another, they don’t hide their working process from the audience. That’s one of the entertaining aspects of this show. Unlike puppeteers who are usually concealed, this troupe is front and center, letting their hands get in the shot as they maneuver their miniatures. Many of the sound effects are also created in plain view by Arthur Sauer, from coconut shell hoofsteps to wind breathed into a microphone.

In one scene the performers are like kids playing with mud pies and little army men, flicking their characters around to simulate bullet hits. At other times, they place the soldiers artfully on a mound of dirt to depict a steady build-up of bodies. It’s possible to follow the story and watch Hotel Modern set up each scene as well, moving swiftly from black-and-white trench vignettes to earth-toned grave sites. Broom heads, sawdust, parsley, and other everyday matter is used to evoke wide-scale natural objects; celery stalks are burned to simulate a decimated forest as if Francis Ford Coppola is shooting Asparagus Now. Sparklers and fire crackers become high explosives, all immaculately synched to booming sound effects.

The ear-popping noises and timeless, sometimes abstract music help the audience care about the downsized devastation. Prospert’s words are what really engage us, though. He was a real person and we hear his increasingly desperate letters home. Performers Herman Helle, Arlene Hoornweg, and Pauline Kalker tell Prospert’s story methodically, through memorable imagery (a dead friend’s head becomes a glob of melted wax), special effects (dry ice doubles as mustard gas), effective lighting (caramel colored sunsets), and the women’s live narration.

The Great War only suffers from a lack of light on the performers — it would be great to see more of their working methods — and the condensed story. It tries to squeeze four years into one hour, covering the whole conflict from beginning to end. As a result, there’s only room for a generalized look at hostilities, the kind that the war’s best known for; the war of attrition, rat-filled bunkers, artillery bombardments and a submarine sneak attack. It’s WWI 101, simplifying abhorrent historical events.
Of course, by keeping the story structure straightforward and not getting too specific about historical facts, Hotel Modern makes its point that there’s terrible waste in any war. Anyone considering a tour in Iraq would be advised to take a seat at this show first.

The Great War by Hotel Modern • Spoleto Festival USA • $32 • 1 hour • June 5-7 at 8 p.m., June 7 & 8 at 2 p.m. • Emmett Robinson Theatre, 54 St. Philip St. • (843) 579-3100