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Play probes war veteran issues


Cate Belleveau, founder of the Mask and Rose Women's Theater Collection, has never wavered in her belief that theater is more than just sitting back and having a good laugh and enjoying the company of friends.

Belleveau is well-known as an actor, director and producer in the Bemidji community. She played Nurse Ratched in KG Entertainment's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," her production of the high school version of "Les Miserable" played to enthusiastic audiences as did the all-female cast of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and "High School Musical" is somewhere in the mix.

"A lot of Bemidji uses theater for pure entertainment and there is nothing wrong with that," said Belleveau. "But another vision of the way that art is used is to have people think, analyze their own thinking, hear other points of view and voice."

Belleveau also is known for her ability to tackle cutting edge or sometimes controversial issues with perceptive casting of aspiring actors and innovative directing. One such play will be presented Feb. 18-20 at the Wild Rose Theater, "Ajax in Iraq" by Ellen McLaughlin. The play is based upon research by graduate students who went out and interviewed veterans from the Iraq war. They looked at how vets were received when they returned home, letters written to and by the vets, diaries, games, women's issues as they relate to military service and myriad other data all relating to issues of active service during war time.

The play was based upon the research which was sponsored by a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts received by McLaughlin.

It appears Belleveau and McLaughlin belong to the school of thought that advocacy for or against social mores has an essential role in the arts. McLaughlin's play, which premiered last summer Off Broadway, essentially said that things have not changed much for the soldier since the mythical warrior Ajax fought so bravely in the Trojan War to McLaughlin's heroine, AJ, a soldier in the Iraq War. Both performed acts of bravery and both were betrayed by their commanding officers.

A character appears on stage from still another time period when politicians were dividing up the Ottoman Empire and forming new countries like Iraq without regard to ethnic and religious leanings. Belleveau appears as Gertrude Bell, a British archeologist, who was instrumental in carving out and naming the new countries because of her influence with politicians of the day and the trust of the Arab peoples in her close friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia.

"We are not some bleeding-heart artists trying to change anyone's mind," said Belleveau. "We (the cast and I) want to honor those young men and women who are called to serve in war time. They return home and we tell them that we are proud of them, as we should, but they often suffer the lingering effects of what they saw, did or did not do. We want to hear their stories and we are just going to let the voices of these soldiers be heard. People can take what they want, think about issues and perhaps change an attitude or solidify their thoughts."

The play is a serious look at how things have not changed much and also the futility of war, and the resulting damage that is done to our young men and women who return home and are unable to make a successful transition. As Belleveau went on to explain, there are many groups in this area that help veterans, especially from the Gulf War through the War in Iraq, transition back into society. There are many instances of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness combined with drug or alcohol misuse and the crisis of high suicide rates.

"We have Chuck Deeter, who plays an American captain, and he is an amazing mentor for some of these young actors because he is a Vietnam vet and very active with vet organizations as well," said Belleveau. "He speaks with a very powerful voice to our young men and women who are in this play because he has seen it and it isn't just an abstraction because he has seen these things and he knows the frustration that we seem to want to keep going down that same path."

Belleveau went on to explain that doing this play ("Ajax in Iraq") is her simple way of supporting and honoring the authentic voices of our soldiers. Some, when they come back, are haunted because they might have done things that they are not proud of because they had to made decisions to ensure the safety of their men. They go to war with idealistic motives that can be at odds with the reality of the moment. Vets sometimes have a hard time to accept the "We are proud of you" comment upon return when they might feel anything but proud of what they have done.

"People should not be afraid to come see the play because it leans in one direction or another," said Belleveau. "I just want to let people think about it (the after-effects of war on veterans) and show a heightened empathy for what our soldiers are going through right now and what they went through. The play covers a lot of different issues in a short period of time."

Tickets for the play and dinner theater are available now at the Wild Hare Bistro and Coffee House. Owner Reed Olson will be catering the event with traditional Iraqi foods, including meat and vegetarian entrees. The price for dinner and the play is $30 and the play only is $10 and those tickets may also be purchased at the door on the day of performance. Iraq and Afghan war vets will be given free tickets.

Some proceeds from the event will be going to Vets for Vets, a peer counseling for soldiers with PTSD.

On Feb. 18, dinner will be served at 5:30 p.m. with the show to follow at 7. On Feb. 19, dinner is at 12:30 p.m. and the show at 2. On Feb. 20, there will be no dinner, only a show at 7 p.m.

The mature subject matter makes this play a PG-13 because of language and sexual exploitation.

For more information on the play and cast please see the Arts News blog on the homepage of