7 Stages’ ‘Red Badge’ a courageous misfire

“Red Badge of Courage”

Grade: C+

Through March 23. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. (March 15 and 22); 10 a.m. (March 6 and 13). $15.37. 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., Atlanta. 404-523-7647. www.7stages.org.

Bottom line: A flawed curiosity.

A co-production between the Little Five Points company 7 Stages and the Kennesaw State University theater department, “Red Badge of Courage” is easy enough to respect for having the courage of its convictions.

Unfortunately, it proves a lot harder to appreciate as a fully realized stage treatment of the famous Stephen Crane novel. Co-created by 7 Stages associate artistic director Michael Haverty (a storied veteran of the Center for Puppetry Arts) and KSU theater professor Jane Barnette – and barely running an hour in length – the show is a rather abridged version of the sweeping Civil War tale about an understandably conflicted Union soldier.

Besides a five-member ensemble (four of whom are Kennesaw students), Haverty and Barnette also use puppets and animated video projections to help enact the story, with stark lighting, electronic music and sound effects, and a (suffocating) smoke machine to lend atmosphere. Their design team includes Tanner Slick (puppets), Kristin Haverty (animation), Ben Rawson (lights) and Damon Young (music).

The multi-technical results can be sporadically striking: the eerie appearance of a skeletal Death incarnate under a black light; a fairly breathtaking night sky overlooking an expanse of army tents and campfires; the young protagonist Henry’s mad dash through the woods to flee the horrors of battle.

At other times, though, there’s an almost tacky quality to the effects that essentially detracts from the inherent power of the drama: a circus routine involving shadow puppets; projected displays of blue and red arrows charting Union and Confederate maneuvers on a military map; the carnage of war depicted as a barrage of severed body parts in one animated sequence that recalls Monty Python more than Matthew Brady.

By the end, all of the flashy techniques get to be too much, literally drowning out dialogue and figuratively diverting our attention and interest away from poor Henry and his soul-searching situation. Ashamed of an act of cowardice, he seeks atonement and longs to pay an ultimate price for it.

Student actor Josh Brook brings a sincerity and sensitivity to the character nonetheless. Indeed, the age-appropriate casting of comparatively inexperienced college kids as the innocent young soldiers in the story makes perfect sense. What doesn’t, frankly, is casting the other three of those roles with actresses in drag (Laura Driskill, Devon Hales, Megan Jance). Professional actor Bryan Mercer plays a couple of older authority figures.

As was the case last season with 7 Stages’ far superior “Lady Lay,” which dealt with a German bureaucrat who finds her own identity as the Berlin Wall crumbles around her, “Red Badge of Courage” sets Henry’s highly personal story against an epic historical backdrop that might have been more productively conveyed on the theater’s main stage, instead of confined to its tiny studio space.

The overall impression of the show somehow minimizes the “rush of war” it means to evince.