Watching Howard Petrick perform his self-written, autobiographical, one-man show, Breaking Rank! was a bit of a time-machine trip for me. Petrick is just a few years older than I, and his cultural frame of reference — growing up in the 1960s and resisting American aggression in Southeast Asia — was very much the same as mine. I was in college a few years after he undertook his unusual course of allowing himself to be inducted into the Army and doing everything he could to question the military and encourage his fellow soldiers to question the morality of the war in Vietnam.
Petrick is a fit-looking performer in a drab green T-shirt and black jeans. His jet-black hair and heavy eyebrows make him an easily read onstage presence.
He has studied how to vary his stance and speak in ways to differentiate several characters (a slow-speaking cook, a mentally addled kitchen assistant, a drill sergeant whose machine-gun delivery is almost unintelligible). He is confident in his storytelling.
I lived through that same period of American history, and Petrick’s narrative, told as an hour-long monologue, has the earnest authenticity of someone who believed he could and should make a difference by being obtuse, difficult, obstinate and downright infuriating to his military overseers. Breaking Rank! is earnest testimony of Petrick’s beliefs.
Alas, that doesn’t make for dramatic variety. Petrick plays many roles — his naïve younger self, various officers who are befuddled by his behavior, fellow GI’s and more with varying voices, regional accents, physical postures and sly, knowing glances. But after a while there is a sameness to his performance. His own persona is presented with a virtuous tenacity, while the military figures who control his life are largely loud and stupid. He befriends a former schoolteacher with a mischievous sense of humor and earns the grudging admiration of a military attorney who defends Petrick in a court-martial for his obstinate denial of authority. But Breaking Rank! has an eventual predictability that telescopes the message long before the piece’s final minutes. There’s no doubt that he’s going to outwit the dimwitted authorities, and while Petrick’s recounting of his journey has moments of humor and irony, the sum total is interesting without being compelling.