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What is it? Hotel Modern, a Dutch theater collective, shrinks the inconceivable scale of World War II down to a conceivable size. Using stalks of parsley as trees, cardboard boxes as houses, and toy soldiers as men, the group recreates a devastated tableau of trench warfare right before your eyes while photographing and projecting the horror of it all onto a wide movie screen. Hotel Modern made The Great War in 2001, way before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it’s not consciously a wartime polemic. Even so, it couldn’t be more timely, especially given the run-up to the 2008 presidential election in which candidates either want to get out of Iraq soon or 100 years from now.

Why see it? First, it’s a triumph of technique and media. And perhaps more importantly, it’s a triumph of inverted spectacle. We live in a visually sophisticated age, in which experiences of film versions of war are commonplace. By making us constantly aware of the performance’s artificiality — that is, by recreating miniature scenes of No Man’s Land in sync with readings from letters home by a French soldier named Prospere — Hotel Modern is able to pierce the numbness of our desensitized minds and refresh, as it were, our sense of the ghastliness of war.

Who should go? In essence, Hotel Modern creates an alternate universe that’s a reflection of our own. A difference, though, between The Great War and, say, The Great Debaters, is that while the latter wants you to forget that you’re watching a representation of reality, the former wants you to remember that fact, and in making you remember that it’s not real, it makes World War I feel more real. Weird.

SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $32 • 1 hour 20 min. • June 4-7 at 8 p.m.; June 7, 8 at 2 p.m. • Emmett Robinson Theatre, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. • (843) 579-3100

A Wound in History: Making war seem more real by being really unreal

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There’s a moment at the end of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo in which our hero mounts a Jeep that itself is mounted with a very big gun. He’s trying to save a bunch of mercenaries from being killed by a bunch of genocidal psychopaths.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Rambo isn’t concerned with saving all the mercenaries, just the fetching blond woman among their ranks, the one who succeeded in warming the ex-Green Beret’s stone-cold heart with the mere tenderness of her naïve belief in truth, duty, and the American way.

Or something. Anyway, the Jeep is lousy with bad guys. Rambo sneaks up on them. He climbs the Jeep, wrests control of the gun, starts shooting.

The result is about 15 minutes’ worth of bodies being rent, burned, beheaded, eviscerated, chopped, and splattered throughout the jungle.

Like I said. It’s a very big gun.

Representations of such violence have been commonplace in our cinematic history at least since Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah had little patience with the polite cinematic conventions of violence — characters just dropped to the ground, and there was little if any blood or gore.

“If they move, kill ’em” signaled a new kind of thinking. After Peckinpah’s final shoot-out, in which the “good” guys die horribly, there was no going back to the old ways of seeing. (One must admit a crucial difference between Rambo and The Wild Bunch: In the latter, frames shift with the action’s dramatic tension, and the Strasbergian acting is a constant reminder of human suffering.)

So in this context the achievement of an innovative theater company might be understood. That achievement is getting us to feel the shock of violence despite the widely held belief that most of us have long been desensitized to it.

And that is exactly what Dutch theater collective Hotel Modern do with the live-animation performance, The Great War.

Opening at the Emmett Robinson Theatre on June 4, The Great War entails using stalks of parsley as trees, cardboard boxes as houses, and toy soldiers as infantrymen to recreate a miniature tableau of trench warfare on a table located in front of a live audience while photographing and projecting the devastation and horror of it all onto a wide movie screen.

By making us constantly aware of the representation’s artificiality — that is, by recreating live mini-scenes of No Man’s Land in real time with readings from letters home by real soldiers — Hotel Modern pierces the numbness of our desensitized minds and refreshes, as it were, our sense of the ghastliness of war.

Unlike cinema, it never tries to seem real. The Great War is different from, say, The Great Debaters. While the latter wants us to forget we’re watching a representation of reality, the former wants us to remember, and in making us remember it’s not real, it makes the casualties of war seem more real.

“It makes the inconceivable conceivable,” says Pauline Kalker, co-founder of the group. “You can show the scale of the war’s devastation. You can show hundreds of soldiers dying. So many died. So many more were wounded.”

Members of Hotel Modern — Kalker, Arlène Hoornweg, and Herman Helle — have parents who fought in World War II. Kalker’s grandfather died in one of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. Her father spent time in a Japanese prison camp in the Pacific Rim. They are inspired by their families, but also by war’s universality, which they and many other artists and writers have observed, has come to be universal because of the ravages of World War I.

“It’s important for us to show people what war was like,” Kalker says. “It was the first technological war — machine guns, mustard gas, tanks, and barbed wire. It was the first war in which millions of people were killed. There are still places in Europe where the land has been poisoned. Nothing grows.”

The Great War is episodic. A soldier, for instance, walks to the latrine and, while urinating, is shot dead by a sniper. In many of the episodes, a voice reads from letters written by actual soldiers at the time, many of them English and German. Most are from a single Frenchman named Prospere.

“We tried to look at war through the eyes of the soldiers,” Kalker says.

That’s also done through movie language, like point of view — the camera often follows the soldier’s feet, barring you from seeing the danger he’s in, compelling your imagination to fill in where your eyes cannot see. Kalker says people open themselves up to puppets and tableaus in a way they wouldn’t for a movie. People are mostly hardened, she says, to the cinematic image.

“It appeals to the imagination,” Kalker says. “It also appeals to the senses. People have told us how shocked they felt when they smelled the burning of the parsley, paper, and cardboard. The experience is intense and poetic.

“Working with puppets we can show dead bodies, lots of dead bodies. In one place, we cover a pile of puppets with dirt, then snow, then dirt again. Then we plant parsley on them, like a tree, but we know the men are inside. There are places in the world where bodies lay in the ground, but they never got buried.

“It’s a wound in history,” she says. “Every war leaves a big scar.”