Since witnessing Palace of the End recently, the Epic Theatre Ensemble’s production of Judith Thompson’s screed against the current war in
A classic in the traditional sense of the word is something that is timeless, something that will resonate with all the audiences that come after forevermore. It will be applicable to their lives and experience, even if it takes a small leap to get there. And of course Harold Bloom would have to flap his jowls about it.
Palace of the End, like the Iraq War, like
Alas, much like the flavors of a fine meal can later lead to heartburn, a little time away from the play reveals a few garnishes that fail to digest. This is permissible for a classic, or you’ve never read The Taming of the Shrew.
If I can be clear and ask for complete agreement with any one thing that follows, let me say that any flaws I reveal about Palace of the End are not attributable to the cast. A finer ensemble does not exist at present anywhere else on the
As an American, I often feel guilty about pursuing the theater while my nation is at war. I will flip through BackStage or the Theatrical Index or check my Actors Access account, and wonder why it matters given that someone has recently died either for or because of our country.
We’ve all heard the pseudo-60s claptrap that the art of creation is a response to these times, that the theater can be a salve for the troubled soul and a clarion call to civil protest. Out of our collective low self-esteem we turn to an overcompensation that allows us to believe we can change the world with our iambic pentameter. But wrap that sentiment in a blue jacket, prop it before an American flag, and you have a book cover worthy of Bill O’Reilly.
Perhaps I’d be more prone to believe it if the theater we were making now were important. But nothing feels worse for a civilian with an artistic bent than applauding a stage full of young people for their singing, dancing, or polemics while a less than lucky group that looks just like them are risking everything anonymously on the other side of the planet.
Wallace Shawn would have a field day with me.
You can’t spit into a subway track without spattering a liberal, and a play about
Let me scale back the hyperbole just a bit and confess that I don’t think it means to be. Judith Thompson probably wanted to motivate people and express her own anger and frustration. She is Canadian and therefore blameless for anything happening in the world today. But I suppose she still has to live with it. The Epic Theatre Ensemble takes as its mission to facilitate a community experience through its work. And the audience doubtless finds itself empowered by the play (or, if part of the minority that opposes the production’s slant, superior to it, which is its own kind of empowerment).
In a divided democracy, if one is against the war, it is his responsibility to stop it. If one favors the war, he must persuade the other side to favor it too, not start a second “culture war.” But a stalemate is the result of impotence on both sides. Say what one will about Palace of the End, it does not lack virility. If you are at political liberty to see it—at this moment, not years ago or years from now, but unimpeded this moment—it is better than you are. Given its subject, its time, and its medium, that also makes it better than any production of Hamlet, of Moliere, of Chekhov, or even my beloved Holberg being done right now. It is probably the most accidental classic in history. And let’s face it, nobody is doing Holberg anyway.
But Ludwig aside, we all have our flaws…
Thompson’s begin with the first monologue, “My Pyramids.” It is a solo piece written for the character of Lynndie
But Lamm captures it as best as a third party could hope, and imbues her performance with an insight that
A peripherally related insight for me is how squeamish an audience can be when it comes to language. The vocal disturbances expressed by some members of the audience as Lamm read out sexually insulting emails directed at
But this does not happen as we might think. Instead, we meet a young woman whose life has oddly prepared her for this course. By the time Lamm retakes her desk chair and the lights change, it is implied we should have been surprised had
There is a note in the playbill. While the play is based on real people and taken from the research of historical record, Thompson tells us that “everything other than the real events spring from my imagination.” I don’t know what the rules are in
In Palace of the End we are told that Lynndie England had a remarkably dysfunctional upbringing that could only have designed her for those five pictures she posed for at Abu Ghraib. She viciously tormented an amputee as a school girl, she says, and once grotesquely disposed of a housecat with her bare feet. It’s nauseating stuff; it keeps you spellbound and cold with the fear that you may throw up or she may go on. But just as bad, it becomes as unnecessary as killing a flea with a cannon. As the images
I promptly did Judith Thompson’s bidding. So moved was I by the play, I read up and tried to learn more. I tried to research some of the events recounted, because by the end I felt there was too much to be true. Everything Thompson put into the mouth of Lynndie
Turning people we don’t like into monsters makes them digestible. But the whole quandary about
The real Lynndie
We don’t know if she’s right about the status of any of those prisoners in Abu Ghraib. And most of us might say it wouldn’t make a difference. But
Manufacturing a super-demented childhood for her is not honest. It comes off as cheap and manipulative. And it is an ironic failing in a theater production about politics, two professions that are ostensibly searching for truth. Thompson would have better served her muse by taking a page of her homework from noted psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous Prison Experiment at Stanford in the 1970s. In addition to pioneering research into the susceptibility of the human personality, Dr. Zimabardo was also an expert defense witness for one of the soldiers charged with wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib.
Because the only sense of truth we can be sure of regarding Lynndie
Since being paroled, her only income has been a tax refund, and she lives with her parents and young son in a trailer back in
If it sounds as though I am making excuses for a young woman who should have known so much better, please do not forget something. Donald Rumsfeld walks free and he will never run out of money. So if Terri Lamm makes you feel—sometimes despite the overkill of her text and knowing what we know about Abu Ghraib—that Lynndie England is indeed a type of victim, don’t be too hard on yourself.
It is Rocco Sisto’s amazing performance from which you should take your cue for self-loathing. As the British weapons inspector David Kelly, who committed suicide after exposing intelligence manipulation in the run up to the
Sisto’s eyelids literally and instantly glow red as he connects to whatever inner resource this actor brings with him on stage. It is one of the most transcendent performances I have seen.
And it is probably the most effective piece of the triad. Sisto’s character connects with the audience in a way the others can’t. I doubt anyone in the room with me had been a prison guard engaging in a sick idea of torture al la Lynndie England, or the victim of very sickening, very real torture like Heather Raffo’s Iraqi character. I doubt there were any weapons inspectors or suicide victims the night I attended either. But I would go so far as promise you it was filled with people who hate this war and are convinced it is wrong, and yet have gone along with it. And they hate themselves for it. They assuage their consciences by looking the other way. We are told that David Kelly did this too, and found only one way out. If not a martyr like
Heather Raffo, as Nehrjas Al Saffarh, seems as though she is performing simply for whoever she is looking at. Unafraid of her audience, she stares them directly in the eyes, but not as a confrontation. There is a warmth and humor, and an offer that her strength can be yours. And what strength it is. She plays an Iraqi mother, and for once the atrocities recounted are by the Ba’athists, not the Americans.
But in a prolonged grocery list account of the horrors she and her sons suffer, the play dips from a preoccupation with violence, into a kind of prurient and pornographic fascination with it. And the audience continues to squirm. Am I suggesting that the violence be toned down? No, but redundancy is redundancy, and too much repetition of anything eventually becomes numbing—not unlike the child she speaks of who is beaten until he can’t feel it anymore.
To find fault with the inexhaustible physical suffering of people—or people based on real people—risks the accusation of callousness and cruelty. But subjecting a captive audience to a blow by bludgeoning blow of said same is all but evidence of it. It denies the audience credit that they were against rape, torture, humiliation, murder, and general sadism anyway. I find myself wondering, if we were to eliminate the violent element from Palace of the End, what would the characters have left to say?
I must also make this observation, and it is one that cannot be blamed on the production, but I must say there were times when I was actually sympathetic to the concept of torture. And how I wanted to subject many people in this audience to it—the stupid little girl on the aisle playing a video game on her ipod (yes, you little she-troll, the headphones may have been in, but it still gave off light and you were sitting in the second row—shame on you, and twice as much on your mother who was with you); the lady who just had to fish for those tic-tacs while Heather Raffo was being metaphysically gang-raped; and the owner of that bizarre velcro noise towards the back of the house that punctured those 90 minutes at the most inappropriate times. If at least those philistines could have traded places with the suffering characters on stage and lived through what they described, maybe it would have been a sufficient warning to the other adenoidal, sinus clearing, cell phone checking, tooth-sucking masses that have nothing better to do than ruin plays in this town for the rest of us.
This crowd had the chance to redeem itself after the show. But it failed because Epic Theatre Ensemble insists on pushing ahead with that well-intentioned slow death known these days as the talkback. The talkback, or “post-show discussion” (when was the last time you had a “discussion” in which you had to raise your hand to be recognized?), is a theater fad that is spreading at virus pace, and it is determined to make itself into a tradition—much like a fruitcake or hangover.
While they sound good on paper, to paraphrase Al Pacino in And Justice For All, “in practice, they suck.” Especially when led by a Director of Audience Development (what does that title even really mean?) who starts off his questions by asking the patrons what images or lines of text are likely to remain lodged in their minds two weeks from now. Immediately the crowd is coaxed into a litany of complimentary if not fawning recollections of favorite images and phrases—in many cases, images that didn’t really happen and phrases that are hopelessly misquoted. Suddenly we are in school again and broccoli is good for you.
The guest of honor at this talkback was a young Iraqi student, Haider Hamza, who appeared in a too-tight T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Talk to an Iraqi.” Apparently these are clues to his most recent claim to fame, an appearance on This American Life, in which he detailed his project of setting up a booth in 35 cities in the American Midwest and
Feeling at once superior to their brethren in the slower-paced climes, the
As someone with personal knowledge of the American south, I would like to reassure cosmopolitans that if this play were performed in a place like
Perhaps Palace of the End should stay in town but move to Broadway, as another patron talked back, “so everyone can see it.” Obviously this person has never been to a Broadway show, as most of the patrons there are imported from—the Midwest and the
Cynicism about scripted communal engagement aside, Hamza did mention one thing that bears repeating. “If you are a citizen of a democracy,” he said, “a citizen of the
The lady in front of me shook her head in shame as Hamza (very good-naturedly, he is a student here) pointed his finger at the war crimes of the U.S., and then shook her head in something close to shame as he mentioned the personal loss his family met at the hands of Saddam Hussein (yes, the back of her head was that expressive). And her shaking head was, I think, a metaphor for the bind and paralysis many anti-war Americans feel about the whole mess. Intellectually we know it’s on us. But how do you answer for presiding over a global catastrophe that may be on par with a second
Imagine you’ve had a little too much to drink, and you get into a car. Then you smash into another car carrying an entire family—parents, children, grandparents. And you kill all of them. The next day you sober up and learn what you have done. And then someone says to you, “Now fix it. Make it right. Make it better.”
Where would you start? How could you do it? How could you begin to fathom the blood on your hands, let alone atone for it? I think most people could only just keep drinking. And that’s what a lot of us in this country are doing. We’re drinking.
But we are not happy drunks. No, if there is one emotion that stays with me regarding Palace of the End, it is anger. But not necessarily a healthy one. Because what I am most angry about is that the play was written by a Canadian. This is not a dig against a country that resisted membership in the “coalition of the willing”—it is a dig against the people that have been strong-armed into one and have nothing but blank paper and wasted stages to show for it.
Palace of the End
By Judith Thompson
With Terri Lamm, Rocco Sisto, and Heather Raffo
Directed by Daniella Topol
Presented by the Epic Theatre Ensemble through July 13 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons