Review: Bad Apples. Book by Jim Leonard. Music & Lyrics by Beth Thornley & Rob Cairns. Produced by ACTLab, Circle X and ArtsWest. Directed by John Langs. Musical Direction by Beth Thornley. Choreography by Crystal Dawn Munkers. Scenic Design by Julia Hayes Welch. Costume Design by Pete Rush. Lighting Design by Andrew D. Smith. Sound Design by Robertson Witmer. Projections Design by Jason H. Thompson. With Andi Alhadeff, Carlton Byrd, Kate Morgan Chadwick, Alan E. Garcia, Keiko Green, Frederick Hagreen, John Patrick Lowrie, Mari Nelson, Jesse Smith, Jordan Iosua Taylor. Now through September 25, 2016 at the Falls Theatre at ACT.
Yes. They made a musical about Abu Ghraib. But first, a history lesson.
For those of you quite young, or ignorant, or forgetful, the Abu Ghraib Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Scandal of 2003-2004 was the horrific and shameful war crime committed by US military and government forces at a prison compound in a suburb of the Iraqi capitol of Baghdad after the US invaded the Middle Eastern country headed by dictator Saddam Hussein following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States in September of 2011.
The US military took over the prison after the invasion and established it as a detention center to imprison suspected insurgents and Iraqis suspected of any crime committed against U.S. occupational forces. Over the course of 2003, numerous human rights violations against the detainees occurred, committed by U.S. personnel, that included physical and psychological abuse that involved sexual acts, torture, rape and perverse atrocities involving degradation and humiliation. There were also deaths at Abu Ghraib. These crimes began to come to light at the end of 2003 with reports of the atrocities originally appearing in reports from humanitarian organizations and news outlets but the world didn’t really begin to pay much attention to the story until the horrifying photos emerged on the “60 Minutes” news program, gleefully taken by military personnel, of staff happily posing with abused victims as well as participating in acts of abuse for the camera.
The subsequent investigation implicated dozens of people, including the highest levels of government that included President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld but only a handful of personnel were ultimately convicted of any crimes and punished. A few officers were reprimanded and/or demoted but the only convictions were of enlisted personnel. The most prominent of the military personnel featured in the infamous photos were Specialist Charles Graner, Private First Class Lynndie England, Specialist Megan Ambuhl, Specialist Sabrina Harman, and Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick with Graner and England serving the longest sentences. Much was made of the fact that Graner was having affairs with both England and Ambuhl while at Abu Ghraib. Graner eventually married Ambuhl but impregnated England. Both Harman and Frederick expressed misgivings about the actions at Abu Ghraib at the time, but still participated in the abuse. While the majority of the military personnel at Abu Ghraib were not trained to deal with prisoners, both Graner and Frederick worked as civilian prison guards prior to being in the military.
No one in the Abu Ghraib scandal was charged with murder. The longest sentence was handed to Charles Graner who ended up only serving 6 and a half years of his 10 year sentence.
“I have a bad feeling about this place,” Sabrina Harman wrote home on her first night at Abu Ghraib. “I want to leave as soon as possible.”
Conditions at the base were lousy – and not only for the prisoners. Soldiers had no hot meals and had to shower in cold water. They were exposed to sporadic sniper fire, even inside the compound.
The conditions, the atmosphere of fear, and the sexual tension between young men and women penned in a confined space, perhaps contributed to the jailers’ behaviour. Harman, a lesbian, wrote longing letters to her partner back home, and called Megan Ambuhl, her best friend on the base, “Mommy”. Ambuhl and Lynndie England were both involved sexually with Charles Graner, another of the soldiers who took part in the abuse. Three months after being charged, Ambuhl wrote in an e-mail to Graner: “Study finds frequent sex raises cancer risk – we could have died last night.”
I include all this background information because it IS important to know the facts about Abu Ghraib. It is a dark moment in our nation’s history. We should all be aware of Abu Ghraib and deeply ashamed of it as well as deeply angry our government sanctioned torture and abuse.
Abu Ghraib isn’t funny.
It’s an atrocity.
Bad Apples, the musical play originally produced by the Los Angeles based theater company, Circle X all the way back in 2012, makes its Seattle debut at ACT’s Falls Theatre in a joint effort between ACT Lab, Circle X and Arts West. The creation of LA based writers Jim Leonard (book) and Rob Cairns and Beth Thornley (music/lyrics) who largely work in television, Bad Apples is a surreal take on the Abu Ghraib Scandal via a high concept approach that borrows liberally from Bertolt Brecht. It’s part “Threepenny Opera”, part cheesy music video with an overlay of a Wal-Mart commercial. The not particularly original premise: we’re in “Club Abu” and the events of Abu Ghraib are presented to us in an odd cinematic/theatrical mix that involves up tempo cheesy production numbers, power ballads and rather blandly put together video projections intermixed with some powerful drama scenes that are involving and personal but are then followed by tacky soap opera scenes involving sleazy love triangles straight out of an R rated version of “Melrose Place”.
From a production standpoint, Bad Apples was very frustrating for me. There are some terrific moments in the show; smartly written little dialogue scenes that are compelling and well acted and directed by ACT’s current artistic director John Langs who also directed the original Los Angeles production. But, then those scene are followed by limp satire or another mediocre song. Which is one of the chief problems facing Bad Apples…the songs aren’t very good nor are they well presented. The majority of the actors aren’t great singers…they’re all competent performers who can carry a tune, but only one (Frederick Hagreen) has a great voice and he’s the only one who can “sell” his musical numbers. It’s also not helpful that they’re using a 3 piece band…for a musical, the music seems to be rather neglected and half-assed. If you can’t have actual good songs, at least have exciting and energized musical moments. Bad Apples is an apathetic musical.
Visually, the show is a bit of dud for me as well. The “Club Abu” atmosphere seems halfheartedly executed; we have three or four tables upfront where a few audience members sit. As mentioned earlier, they use screens and projected images but the projections were….weak. Are they using the same projections they used in 2012? Technology has improved a lot since then, kids. Projections are now an integral part of theater productions and even smaller theaters in town are doing strong work with them. The lazy, bland projections in Bad Apples add nothing to the proceedings, which is ludicrous in a show built on an event that became famous BECAUSE of images.
There are strong elements in this production. As stated, there are powerful individual moments and most of them happen when Kate Morgan Chadwick is onstage as “Lindsay Skinner” this show’s version of the real life Lynndie England, perhaps the most notorious Abu Ghraib abuser, the one with the thumbs up pose in front of abused Iraqi prisoners in many of the notorious photos. Ms Chadwick has the advantage of having originally created this role in the Los Angeles production 4 years ago. She’s fierce, funny, enraging, engaging and imbues the character with a realistic layer of fascinating dimensions. Chadwick’s scenes with her hillbilly parents (well played by veteran Seattle actors Mari Nelson and John Patrick Lowrie) are some of the best written and most intimate scenes in the show. While not a powerhouse singer, she also does a fine job with her solo singing moments which are some of the few times in this musical where the music has much purpose.
The acting ensemble is strong with fine work from the mostly youthful cast but there are issues with imbalance. The story centers on Chadwick’s Lindsay Skinner character who is caught in a love triangle with “Chuck” played by Carlton Byrd (a stand in for the real Charles Graner) and Keiko Green’s “Lt Scott” the substitute/amalgamated version of several real life people including Megan Ambuhl who married Graner, as well as Sabrina Harman. Because Chadwick is the more experienced performer with this material, the musical definitely gives her the advantage in all the scenes. Byrd is a charismatic and appealing actor, but he doesn’t really convince that he’s the mastermind and sexual Svengali that controls the two women; he’s too young, too smoothly handsome and too “nice” to convince us that he’s the “Boss”. The same can really be said for Keiko Green; both are fine performers but they get overshadowed by the more experienced actor.
There’s also an issue of race in this version of Abu Ghraib. But, not only race but gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion…it’s all part of the fabric of the real Abu Ghraib as well as in the slightly fictionalized version portrayed here in this specific production. Bad Apples fails on several levels but one of its most grievous sins is how they portray the people involved. The real life ringleaders/scapegoats at Abu Ghraib were white.
Yeah. All the “stars” of Abu Ghraib: Graner, England, Ambuhl, Harman and Frederick….all white. Also: Charles Graner was 36 at the time and Frederick was a bit older. Ambuhl was about 30, Harman in her late 20s and England in her early 20s. Graner’s age and experience were an essential part of the role he played in controlling some of the other perpetrators. But, that’s negated in this play. Everyone’s young and pretty.
The fact that the Bad Apples creators and production team rewrote the story and then cast actors of color to portray abusers against other people of color is problematic. I understand and welcome the need to diversify the theater and give opportunities to artists of color but when you alter things like race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc it can also alter the intent as well as the reality of events and historical documentation. Bad Apples fictionalizes the real story but by doing so, “whitewashes” the fact that Abu Ghraib’s worst offenders were white people abusing non-white people (it should be noted that other accused and convicted offenders at Abu Ghraib were African and Latinx people as well). Bad Apples also trivializes the actions of the Abu Ghraib abusers by overly sexualizing the story, adding lesbianism to the center relationship in a prurient way. And, by rewriting the Graner character and making his stand-in an African American, they also give in to lazy stereotypes by portraying black men as stud/stallions only interested in fornicating with and controlling women.
There’s also the fact that they’ve elevated the combo Ambuhl/Harman character played by Keiko Green and made her an officer in charge of the other two characters…which isn’t based in reality. And, leads to troubling questions on how this play portrays gender roles in addition to its fuzzy stance on issues of race and sexuality and religion and…you get the picture.
So, in a nutshell, this version of Abu Ghraib basically blames the atrocities on:
1) Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/U.S. Govenment and Military (True, to a large degree)
2) Horny, silly, dumb young people caught up in heat of the moment. Oh, and this is what happens when you let women and blacks and lesbians and deviants be in charge of things.
This all troubles me.
It all bothers me that this material romanticizes and glorifies the actions of these people. It humanizes them. It shifts blame for their atrocities onto others. Yes, the U.S. Government/Military must bear a huge brunt of responsibility for these war crimes. Of course.
But, so do Charles Graner and Lynndie England and all the other perpetrators. No one held a gun to Lynndie England’s head and made her do these things. Donald Rumsfeld, as slimy as he is, wasn’t at Abu Ghraib cheering on while men, women and children were raped. Dick Cheney wasn’t smearing feces on prisoners or forcing family members to perform sexual acts on one another. We really can’t excuse or condone or glorify any perpetrator of atrocities at Abu Ghraib regardless if it’s George Bush or Chuck Graner. They’re all despicable.
Which comes to my final charge against Bad Apples….they don’t bother to give the victims any voice at all. Yes, they do very trivially re-enact a couple of the infamous photos but the creators completely gloss over anything too “scary” or vile. As depicted in this show and staged by director John Langs, the worst things that happened at Abu Ghraib were silly photos and rectal exams. It’s all rather glossy and vague because it’s more important we get back to the idiotic MTV grade video theatrics and dumb love triangle with the hot black stud and the two dim but hella sexy bi-girls rather than actually give any voice to Arab/Muslim characters.
Oh, wait. We do have an infantile Act 1 closing scene involving two of the 9/11 hijackers (including the most famous, Mohammed Atta) in Boston the night before the attack as they attempt to use a coupon in Pizza Hut to celebrate their last night on earth. It’s not only a clumsy and stupidly written/directed scene, it’s also highly offensive to the memory of the victims of 9/11. But, it’s not that surprising in a show about abuse against Muslim/Iraqi/Arabic people that doesn’t bother to actually feature real Muslim/Iraqi/Arabic characters or their stories, or apparently, any Muslim/Iraqi/Arabic actors or theater artists ON the production team.
All this raises the question: WHY create this piece of theater? There’s nothing really new being said here. The stance of the theater makers seems to be “Hey, let’s make a piece of controversial theater! Maybe it’ll help our careers!!” It’s all about creating “controversy” for the sake of publicity. Which is problematic and troubling…especially when they’ve created a piece of theater that seems to whitewash the truth, gloss over the horrifying realities of Abu Ghraib and make weak excuses for abuse as it glorifies and humanizes the abusers while silencing and negating the victims of that abuse.
From a production standpoint there are a few things to admire about Bad Apples…an energetic passionate cast led by Kate Morgan Chadwick’s superb performance. It does have some strong moments of drama and some scenes that are well written and directed. It’s never BORING. But, ethically and morally and creatively it’s a no go for me.