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.
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.
With that, Villa looks back on his childhood and young adulthood with his fierce mother and grandmother — his mother threw his father out of the apartment house for being an alcoholic — and an array of dynamic uncles, all now gone.
Villa's performance recalls those of John Leguizamo, for its fluid vivacity and street lingo. It's half celebratory, particularly with passages devoted to food and family gatherings. But there's a sinister undercurrent that manifests itself as a complaint — not unlike Lt. Scott's in Bad Apples. Where Scott blames Rumsfeld and Cheney for actively creating the environment for abuse, Villa blames his grandmother, whom he unrepentantly says he loathes, for encouraging the drug-dealing environment that condemned her sons and grandsons to untimely, violent deaths. "Why did you allow it?" he asks her.
"It was God's will," she replies in Spanish — a line that predates Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's similar accounting for pregnancy from rape. It's also a line that embodies expedience and passivity. As Bill Maher recently quipped, "If everything is God's will, why put out a fire? Or wipe your ass?"
Villa somehow sidestepped the drug trade, but that doesn't make him any less guilty by association. This "guilt" is the reason for his show-closing "confession," too histrionic to be reflective, or at least reliably reflective.
It is nonetheless a beautiful performance, thanks in large part to Pablo Santiago's delicate lighting design and Hana Sooyeon Kim's set. These enclose Villa within mental walls, here made physical but with twiglike cracks through which light blazes. There's also a wooden table, as though he's in some Colombian prison. And in many ways, he is.
Metamorphosis Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Paul Kikuchi's Slice at South Pasadena's Fremont Centre Theatre. It's a child's-eye comic book play set in 14th-century Japan. It too deals with the capriciousness of power but with the animated tone of a Disney flick.
Kai Matsuda (Scott Keiji Takeda) defies his mom (Emily Kuroda) by ignoring the responsibilities of their armor-repair business and devoting his efforts instead to the heroic task of crafting a sword for Lord Ito (Mike Hagiwara). Enter beautiful Fumi Tanaka (Elizabeth Ho), on the run from rival lord Watanabe (Aaron Takahashi), and we have a sitcom Diary of Anne Frank.
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Takahashi weighs in with a funny, droll-pompous cameo as Ito's guard, and the ensemble is fine under Jeff Liu's staging. I simply couldn't locate an allegory, or a story worth caring about.
EMPANADA FOR A DREAM | Written and performed by Juan Francisco Villa | Latino Theatre Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. | Through Nov. 18 (866) 811-4111, thelatic.org
BAD APPLES | By Jim Leonard, Rob Caris and Beth Thornley | Presented by Circle X Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. | Sun., 4 p.m. | Through Dec. 1. | (323) 644-1929, atwatervillagetheatre.com.
SLICE | By Paul Kikuchi | Presented by Metamorphosis Theatre at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. | Through Nov. 18. (877) MTC-8777, metamorphosistheatre.org, fremontcentretheatre.com.