Monday, September 12, 2016

"Bad Apples" - important story, bad musical

Kate Morgan Chadwick and Carlton Byrd in Bad Apples (Jeff Carpenter)
Bad Apples
Co-produced by ACT Theatre/ACTLab, Artswest, and Circle X Theatre
(at ACT Theatre)
Through September 25, 2016

Bad Apples, the new musical at ACT Theatre (co-produced by Artswest and the originating theater in Los Angeles, Circle X Theatre), is bound to get mixed reviews and stir controversy. After all, it is a musical about the most egregious torture and debasement the public is aware of during the 2003 Iraq War aftermath at Abu Ghraib prison. We might as well have someone write a musical about the My Lai Massacre, the 1968 killing of hundreds of civilians by American soldiers.

If you are not aware of what happened at this notorious Iraqi prison, nor the government cover-up of torture (waterboarding, electric shock, hanging from the wrists-behind-the-back, withholding food and water, and sexually debasing prisoners), this musical doesn’t exactly educate you well. Vice President Dick Cheney is on record as saying he would torture again “in a minute.”

It alludes to these issues via an over-focus on a love triangle, which the writers have fictionalized in some strange ways – detailed below. What that means is that large chunks of information that some of us might have from living through it and paying attention to it are assumed to be in your knowledge banks. If they are not there, you really might miss the context. This is a problem.

Some basic context - and what the script gets pretty right: Our youngest and most disconnected adults (17-20 years old) were the ones who signed up in droves for the National Guard to “do something” after 9/11 made them feel patriotic. They were paid well for showing up one weekend a month, but suddenly, when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars needed bodies, were shipped out by the thousands, for the first time out of the country for many. All of a sudden, they were stranded in 100+ degree heat without education about the country they were in and told to do things they had no training or understanding to effect.

Some of them ended up as prison guards at Abu Ghraib, where the U.S. administration housed the high-value prisoners who were thought could provide crucial intelligence about the Iraqi insurgence. We now know that a couple of psychologists from Washington State, Mitchell and Jessen, were hired as CIA psychologists to “advise” on “enhanced interrogation techniques” after presenting a program they made up themselves to the Bush administration. These two are represented in the script, as well. They were paid more than $80 million for their “services.”

The script shows that conditions in Abu Ghraib were dire for both detainees and guards (130 degree heat, no hot water for anything). So, it was like a prison with a prison inside. Much more could have been done to emphasize the claustrophobic atmosphere, and the pressure from the upper ranks to “get more information” from the detainees, without instruction on how to go about it.

The main way the American public found out about the torture is from pictures that found their way from the prison to 60 Minutes 2. They included female prison guards laughing and making fun of the prisoners’ degradations. And it turns out that two of these females were impregnated by one prison guard.

In the script, the writers change one of the women into a higher up, which distorts the power-play completely and wrongheadedly. In this version of the production, they also change the complexion of a number of soldiers. The real story has a lot to do with white privilege and here, the distortions of minorities changes a lot of that resonance, in weird and sometimes wrong ways.

The male soldier is played by Carlton Byrd, a talented performer, but miscast in this role by a) conflating racial stereotypes of sexually rapacious black men, and b) not being believable as a man these women would give up everything for – the script gives him terrible pick-up lines and no credible time to show why he could compel them. This is not the actor’s fault.

Too much time is wasted by the love triangle, and the sex on-stage becomes gratuitous and titillating for the audience. It’s completely beside the point. Sure, it’s strange that two women got pregnant, but so what?

The two women are played by Keiko Green as Lt. Scott, who does a solid job as presented, but the role is completely made up (as mentioned) – which undercuts what she can do with it, and Kate Morgan Chadwick. Chadwick, who played this role in Los Angeles, is a complete power-house and the show is watchable mainly because of her. She can be vulnerable, coarse, funny, vile, love-hungry, teenage, and cynical, by turns.

The cast gives the 250% needed, but the music drags the entire effort down the tubes. The songs do nothing to move the story along; the lyrics are generic longing for home or love or generalized rock-music-like nothings. The only song worth anything at all for a musical is the last one of the night. In fact, almost every time they insert a song, it destroys any tension built up toward a real purpose in the story!

In fact, this entire idea could be laudable for an educational and powerful effort about torture and the American government and who they used to accomplish nefarious political aims, if it were a straight play. They could perhaps have two sides of a stage where one is the prison, suffocating and stranger than fiction, and the upper level government putting more and more pressure on these underlings.

The musical aspect is a gimmick and it doesn’t work. Club Abu, the supposed surroundings that the audience is placed in, doesn’t work. The love triangle is insignificant, trivializing the entire horrific effort the soldiers were engaged in, and doesn’t work. This needs to go back to the drawing board in a big, big way.

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