Combat! Zone

Though impressively entertaining, John Fisher's latest work often battles its own polemics

But Combat! succeeds as sheer entertaining spectacle of enormous scope and range. It also succeeds in adding the homosexual as a generic character to the WWII John Wayne-Hell-Is-for-Heroes genre.

Fisher's confident staging is very much at home on Kate Edmunds' brilliantly simple set: The stage floor is painted like a military topographical map, and a multilevel system of trap doors and elevating platforms turns it into a Pacific island, a landing craft, a parade ground, an office, etc. All of which are greatly enhanced by David K.H. Elliott's lighting, which gives us shocking flashes of battles, tender moonlight, and splendidly garish ballrooms.

The performers -- it's a huge cast with many recognizable as Fisher's by now familiar resident company -- acquit themselves well, except when they get bogged down in polemics (as frequently occurs with Paul Tena's Sullivan and Gabriel Macen's Jimmy). As the lesbian WACs, Kegan Stedwell and Elsa Wolthausen lend spirit and warmth to otherwise token roles. Jeremy Proctor endows his gay and proud enlisted Marine with dignity and strength, and Christian Milne is effective and affecting as Proctor's naive lover. Darryl Stephens is splendid as the lone black soldier, sent by government order to integrate the combat troops.

As an actor playing Sgt. Tower, Fisher is buoyant, playfully maniacal, and energetic, and successfully manages the transition from abusive drill sergeant to platoon leader and hero. Still, Fisher-the-playwright needs to get out the scissors. But Fisher-the-director demonstrates a sophistication of ability and an exuberant, distinctly cinematic imagination. Pass the popcorn.

Combat! An American Melodrama runs through March 10 at Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley; call (510) 642-9988.

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