Credible, riveting drama explores the Vietnam experience

Tracers Play conceived and directed by John DiFusco. Written by Vincent Caristi, Richard Chaves, John DiFusco, Eric B. Emerson, Rick Gallavan, Merlin Marston, and Harry Stephens, with contributions by Sheldon Lettich. A fierce authenticity galvanizes ``Tracers.'' The dramatic anthology at the Susan Stein Shiva Theater (in the Public Theater) transforms the Vietnam experience of its original actor-creators into a riveting stage work. The contents range from enlisted men's raunchy humor to the horrors of carnage. The cast of Vietnam veterans includes Vincent Caristi and Richard Chaves, who collaborated on the Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theater Company production when it premi`ered in 1980.

Preliminary introductions over, ``Tracers'' gets down to military life and basic training with a long drill scene which can be funny as well as frightening. A bawling drill sergeant (J. Kenneth Campbell) bullies his raw ``maggots'' through their paces and then privately expresses concern over the inadequacy of the training with which they are sent into combat.

Arrived in Vietnam, ``Tracers'' unfolds through a series of soliloquies, dialogues, rap sessions, and bouts of horseplay, interrupted by patrols and various kinds of gunfire. Squad veterans give Baby San (Mr. Caristi) a quick course in fundamentals before his first patrol. Black squadron leader Habu (Anthony Chisholm) keeps a firm grip on the evolving situation, whether heading a ``hunt 'em, kill 'em, count 'em'' operation or supervising the gruesome task of collecting the bodies of slain fellow soldiers.

In the waits that strain camaraderie and put the boredom in warfare, Professor (R. J.Bonds) reads Pirandello and discovers a kindred spirit in Doc (Josh Cruze), a guitar-playing medic whose tour of duty ends in suicide. Cool-headed, bourbon-sipping Little John (Brian Delate) cautions Baby San against ``shooting up'' with the drug-addicted Dinky Dau (Mr. Chaves). Scooter (Jim Tracy) receives a ``Dear John'' letter from his Chicago sweetheart. In a final song, these enlisted men spell out their alienation from the folks on the home front, to which some of them return.

It can be seen from the foregoing that ``Tracers'' covers a good deal of by now familiar ground. What counts is the validity of the material and the integrity with which it is performed, even though the actor-veterans are now more mature than the youngsters they portray. In keeping with the purposes of Thomas Bird, the company's founder and artistic director, the montage of vignettes and portrayals justifies itself. It is part of the group's six-year effort to counteract the silence and isolation confronting many Vietnam veterans and to communicate their wartime and postwar experiences. While concentrating on the war zone, ``Tracers'' also touches on some of the complex aspects of a conflict that has so tormented America's conscience.

The method is not merely one of documentary drama. When the soldiers go into action with their automatic rifles, the action is choreographed to a rock beat and the noise of firing comes from amplifiers. The visual elements are simple but effective: a multilevel platform against a backdrop of jungle camouflage cloth. The production was designed by John Falabella (scenery), David Navarro Velasquez (costumes), and Terry Wuthrich (lighting). The highly realistic sound effects are by Mr. DiFusco, the rock music from assorted sources.

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