By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
It's no secret: We, as a species, are more vicious than the most violent of dogs. What remains perplexing is that in the millennia since Homer, and his graphic descriptions of guts and brains being spewed onto battlefields in The Odyssey, that the mechanism in our brain that continues to turn off the empathy switch remains so persistent. Remember that photo of uniformed U.S. Army reservist, petite Lynndie England, giving the thumbs-up sign to the camera, a cigarette dangling from her lips, against the backdrop of naked, male Abu Ghraib prisoners she's been assigned to guard, one being forced to masturbate for the camera. Or of her dragging another naked prisoner around by a dog leash.
It recalls Gandhi's famous retort to the question, "What do you think of Western Civilization?" Gandhi replied, "I think it would be a good idea."
An image repeated in Juan Francisco Villa's disturbing and smoothly performed one-man autobiographical show, Empanada for a Dream (at Los Angeles Theatre Center through Nov. 18), is that of a Colombian drug lord — one of Villa's many uncles who have all failed to survive to age 33 on the Lower East Side — cutting a rival's throat, reaching into that now bloodied throat and pulling the victim's tongue down and out through the neck. Just to make a point.
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Meanwhile, over at Atwater Village Theatre, Circle X Theatre Company is presenting the new musical Bad Apples, with a book by Jim Leonard, lyrics and music by Rob Cairns and Beth Thornley, based on the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. On the face of it, this sounds like a horrible idea, leading inevitably to a musical that threatens to reduce an international tragedy to camp, or to treat it with portentous, operatic grandeur.
Bad Apples does neither, under John Langs' direction. Its musical-theater ancestors are Cabaret and Chicago — musicals that reach into the darkest crevices of human behavior with sardonic wit and a coating of sexuality. It also keeps probing the question of why somebody like Lynndie England, here named Lindsay Skinner (the terrific Kate Morgan Chadwick, in a spritely blend of needy and cavalier), would participate in such abuse.
For the most part, the show doesn't attempt to explain the hole in the middle of Lindsay's self-worth; rather, amidst a series of flashbacks, it depicts scenes that simply reveal domestic circumstances that might trigger her cruelty: longings for affection, sex and devotion, all twisted into a toxic cycle of defiance and revenge. Mainly, these longings stem from a husband who may have abandoned her (he left to "lay cable" in another state), from growing up a dead-end town in Tennessee (England grew up in Arkansas), from her mother's diagnosis of breast cancer and from the romantic betrayal by a fellow soldier, St. Chuck Shepard (James Black), who has impregnated her. The character of Shepard appears to be spun from reservist Charles Graner, the apparent ringleader in the Abu Ghraib scandal.
The three-act musical turns on a love triangle among Skinner, Shepard and Shepard's commanding officer, Lt. Margaret Scott (Meghan McDonough) — also impregnated by Shepard. After her prosecution for her treatment of inmates, Scott makes the point to a hostile journalist that the problem of abuse started with policies set by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (whose cryptic quote about "known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns" reverberates through Cricket S. Myers' sound design) and Vice President Dick Cheney. They set clear policies allowing for torture, Scott insists, despite those policies having been outlawed by the Geneva Convention. Torture was practiced by private operatives and countenanced by a battery of commanding officers. Yet not a single officer was punished for the abuses they allowed and encouraged, Scott rages to audience applause.
The play's larger point about the thin veneer of civilization comes from a study (mentioned in the play) by Stanford University's Philip George Zimbardo, in which 24 clinically sane participants played roles of prisoner and guard. The two-week study was canceled after only six days, due to the escalating sadistic trauma to the "prisoners" from the sadism inflicted by the participants "playing" their guards.
All of this comes accompanied by a three-piece band, by songs of inexorable longing and desire and ambition sung in country ballads and rock ditties.
Rumsfeld blamed the scandal on a few "bad apples," but the musical takes a more far-reaching look at environments, both military and civilian, in which good apples are abandoned to rot.
In Empanada for a Dream, Juan Francisco Villa moves like a dancer in his 80-minute solo memory play about growing up on the Lower East Side amidst his massively extended Colombian family. He also has a richly textured voice and a physical dexterity that allow him to depict an almost bewildering array of characters, sometimes too bewildering to keep his sprawling portrait within its narrative frame, despite the heroic efforts of director/sound designer Alex Levy.
Much of this can be forgiven by the dream-play premise, in which Villa awakens at age 32, tortured by the nightmare that he won't survive to 33, for the simple reason that the cycles of vengeance within the drug culture that permeates his community don't permit men to live that long.