Monday, June 30, 2008

Theater Review: Palace of the End

Since witnessing Palace of the End recently, the Epic Theatre Ensemble’s production of Judith Thompson’s screed against the current war in Iraq, I have been wrestling with how inadequate the word “classic,” really is. This trio of riveting monologues is a classic to be sure, but not in the way a Shakespeare or a Dostoyevsky or even—and this is prophesying—a JM Coetzee will be regarded.

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 Vietnam, like every divisive conflagration of any age, will also fade away into a forest of footnotes and memories. For the good of mankind let’s hope it doesn’t take a hundred years for its topicality to evaporate. But the play will hold a special poignancy for all who see it now. It has to be the most viscerally effective production north of Coney Island.

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 New York stage. I have yet to see August: Osage County, but would still take that bet. The three characters in this play are tight and in tandem, and have an interconnection that comes full circle and resonates. And yet they never directly interact.

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 Iraq is almost certain to be against the war just by virtue of its being a play. Palace of the End knows the audience it is going to attract—so many others pretend people will take their seats with an open mind—and it skewers them. But I say that this is a classic not because it is so effective and so well written (and the performances even better) but because it is better than its audience. And being better than the audience must certainly rank as one of the prerequisites for being a classic.

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 England, the US Army Private jailed for her role in the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib. Teri Lamm’s performance is arresting in its frankness, and captures the wonder of an undereducated country girl Forrest Gumping it through life. Going from a West Virginia Dairy Queen to war-torn Iraq within a year would have to be a jolt for anyone. To be the headliner of a scandal that gets international play on top of it is an experience that only Lynndie England can lay claim to.

But Lamm captures it as best as a third party could hope, and imbues her performance with an insight that England herself has seemed unable to at least communicate in a spate of interviews. The self-justification is there, the parallel to martyrdom is made clear—if you’re caught with someone else’s pants down and the entire civilized—and uncivilized—world can identify you, I suppose that is martyrdom of a sort. Where is it written that being a martyr requires the cause to be righteous?

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 England made me realize fewer people than I had thought are acquainted with the oeuvre of Internet Literature. Surely it is laden with as many “cunts,” “cocks,” emoticons, and misspelled ethnic slurs as the Bible has “Thou shalt nots.” This kept the keel uneven for the first several minutes as I wondered if the audience were trying too hard to be offended by language or whether Lynndie England would transform into a feminist hero(ine) within the next thirty minutes.

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 England not found herself in the Middle East communicating with a naked man via a leash. And with a good night’s sleep under my belt, I can say that this is disappointing.

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 Canada, but I doubt this is a disclaimer that would stand up in any court of merit. And at the risk of appearing on the wrong side of Abu Ghraib, let’s not forget it is still possible to slander someone we don’t like.

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 England recounts pile up and fester, some of them begin to reek with a whiff of artistic license.

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 England may very well be true, yet my brief but earnest google search could not find any verification for the story about the amputee or the housecat. And if these episodes are in fact made up, I have to wonder why. The photos of Abu Ghraib are real, and… well… aren’t they enough, Ms. Thompson?

Turning people we don’t like into monsters makes them digestible. But the whole quandary about Iraq right now is that it can’t be swallowed easily. Manufacturing a Lynndie England that is a monster-in-waiting isn’t just legally incautious, but counter-dramatic. Indeed, the true horror behind Abu Ghraib is that it was perpetrated by people who were otherwise normal; perhaps not wholesome, but by no means preordained to lie in wait for helpless prey and then pounce with glee.

The real Lynndie England has steadfastly claimed that she “went along with” the culture she found being practiced by her friends and lover at Abu Ghraib. Pressed by reporters that such a justification isn’t good enough, she invokes martyrdom and reminds us that she’s certain those prisoners were American-killing terrorists.

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 England is at least being honest in telling us what she believes (why lie about it since we won’t accept her motives anyway?).

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 England comes from the expertise of Teri Lamm’s performance, let it be noted that according to a recent interview for a German magazine, England is serving a military prison term until September of 2008. She is currently on parole, and will remain so as long as she gets a job pretty soon.

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 West Virginia. The father of her child is the disgraced Charles Graner (of course, that adjective presupposes that he actually had grace to begin with). Graner married another of the criminal soldiers implicated at Abu Ghraib and has no contact with his son. England has no car, I wonder if she could afford the gas for it today if she did. So far she has been turned down for entry-level employment by Wal-Mart and Staples. Despite putting a defining stamp on a chapter of American foreign policy, keep in mind she is still just 25 years old. Those are the facts, no artistic license needed. Until someone else commits international sin and has the talent to broadcast his face with enough success to eclipse hers, and is socially vulnerable enough to be punished for his crimes, things are unlikely to change for Lynndie England.

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 Iraq invasion, Sisto is mesmerizing as his story weaves its way through the head into the heart. There is more reason than pity in this piece, subtitled “Harrowdown Hill.” But don’t think it is anything less than emotionally gripping. Of course, its pathos is helped along with the by this point obligatory relaying of horrors committed by Americans against the Iraqis; in this case the victims are a charming bookseller family.

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 England, he likens himself to a soldier—one who dies in an unnecessary war, a lie of a conflict. His rhetorical questions elicit very real, audibly sniffled responses from the audience in a fashion that theater at its best was designed to do.

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 Deep South, and engaging the locals in conversation about their feelings on the Iraq War. His impressions are sad but unsurprising.

Feeling at once superior to their brethren in the slower-paced climes, the New York audience began to insist that Palace of the End belongs in front of the people in Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, and other such places. This dose of reality-based art would do them good, and maybe they will understand. But the great question was, could it be done?

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 Alabama, people would go and see it. However, they would be the same type of people who would go and see it in New York. They do exist there. Let it be known that if a Manhattanite found himself relocating to either the Bible or the Corn belts, rest assured he would make friends. He would find people whose company he enjoyed, and who enjoyed his in return. Yes, he would find kindred spirits in any political, spiritual, artistic, or personal pursuit he chose to follow. The fact that they could be in the statistical minority in such a region doesn’t change a particular fact: Alabama did not lead us into this war. A few prominent New Yorkers did help pave the way… but if Alabama had been the only part of America leading the charge, does anyone think we’d have gone?

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 Deep South. If Epic has any thoughts about following that suggestion, I would not advise them to expect the producers of The Little Mermaid to quake in fear that you may siphon off their swarming ichthyophiles.

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 United States, you are responsible for what’s happening in Iraq right now.” Essentially, I believe this is true, regardless of which side of this fight one occupies. It was a statement that underscored the squirming we’d all done during the performance, and was received much by way of mental applause (thankfully no hands clapped until the end) and echoed with excuses. We blamed the media, we blamed the government, one person even supposed it was because Palace of the End was not listed in the New York Times for a week.

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 Rwanda?

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