‘Breathe like you are giving birth’

Local’s ‘Paper Cut’ undresses the stereotype of the all-American soldier

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Michael Ensminger Photography
Caitlin Rockett | Boulder Weekly

Paper Cut, the new play by Andrew Rosendorf, produced by Boulder’s Local Theater Company, ends with two men on a beach, one fallen into the other, the big spoon and the little. The men, very much in love, are wondering about regret. Even before the actors exit the stage the audience begins applauding. The lights fall and the duo scurries off stage. Immediately, they’re back to take a bow, and less than 30 seconds after the curtain fell, the room begins rising for an ovation. Most of us hesitate though, lumbering to stand, not because the actors don’t deserve it,  but because we need a minute. To sit, to settle our psyches, to wipe our tears.

By the end of Paper Cut the lead character, Kyle, i.e. the little spoon, has literally and symbolically undressed; he is not the “stereotypical, all-American soldier” we were once promised. Yes, he is a man with a buzz cut and a dry sense of humor, a man whose patriotism is inseparable from his identity. Yes, he is a tough guy, one who parrots the quote, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf,” as a way to make sense of the costs of being a soldier, costs he knew going in, but that were impossible to understand until they were incurred: losing a leg, losing his penis, and so losing his ability to serve as a soldier.

The “rough men” phrase was scorched into Kyle’s memory by his father, a veteran, a bigot and a brute, but a hero nonetheless. It was his banner of toxic masculinity, waved, not quite like an excuse, but as a rationale for the at-times violent machismo of men, especially men at war. In the play, Kyle attributes the quote to George Orwell, although both in reality and in the script, the quote is unattributable. It simply exists, just like our idea of what a soldier is, how all of us are, somehow, defined by manhood at the extreme.

But Paper Cut crescendos in a surprisingly feminine way, in a scene in which Kyle is suffering phantom limb pains. His brother, a civilian, scrambles to get him pain medication and after Kyle swallows the pills dry, his brother asks him what else there is to do. “Breathe,” Kyle says, and when it doesn’t work, his brother says, “Breathe like you are giving birth.” The pain subsides, and suddenly Kyle is not defined by the masculinity a soldier must assume, but by the spectrum between taking and giving life.

Director Pesha Rudnick says this scene was perhaps the trickiest to direct, the one in which the actors most struggled to submit to the transition they were asked to perform.

While it might be easiest to let our traumas distance us, Paper Cut presses them, one up against another, until they form a bond instead.

Even the play’s set, designed by Susan Crabtree, works to contain its multitude of scenes and themes in an impossibly small space. The set begins a vacant one, but by the end seems overfull, as if it might burst, mimicking the feel of the play itself, the feeling that Kyle has been given too much to bear. But in its smallest detail, dangling star lights extending from stage all the way to the back of the audience, we are reminded that we all exist under the same sky, that we all bear Kyle’s burden.

Playwright Rosendorf admits to having eschewed his complicity in a country so long at war, for he had his own battles to fight. A gay man in America, his life, and his work, have long revolved around his desire to explore a homosexual character who is not defined by their sexuality or stereotype.

He was surprised when the inspiration for Paper Cut struck in 2012 while reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning articles by David Wood detailing the alarming number of soldiers losing their genitals in IED explosions. Until then it was a hidden phenomenon, cloaked both by pants and by the shame of the soldiers who wore them. Although there is no way to truly understand the losses they incurred (and incur still), Rosendorf found a closeness in their pain, closing the gap between a civilian and a soldier.

It’s a gap that Rex Laceby, a veteran consulting on the Local production, knows well. Injured while holding the city of Ramadi in Iraq, Laceby lost the vision in one eye and mobility in his hands and shoulders. Now, back stateside, it’s common for him to have post-traumatic stress, for example, to drop to the ground at the sound of a zipper zipping or a cannon going off at a football game.

But in watching Paper Cut, he says he felt his triggers brought to stage in a redemptive way, in a way that could help him bridge the gap between his experience in combat and his experience in a country in a time of supposed peace.

“What I’ve been through is impossible to convey, but Kyle’s trajectory refused the idea that distance is also difference,” he says.

Instead, with the players and the audience all under the same starry sky, Paper Cut posits that the struggle for freedom of identity is universal, and hard, and so proves the existence of empathy.

On the Bill: Paper Cut. Dairy Arts Center, Grace Gamm Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-444-7328. Through Nov. 11.