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A CurtainUp Review
Embedded At New York's Public Theater
By Elyse Sommer
The journalists who were embedded with the troops during the Iraq war have long gone back to their more conventional way of reporting. Not so the troops whose tours of duty has extended to a peacekeeping effort that has already taken more lives than the war. Thus, even though the battle grabbing most of the current headlines is the one for the Presidency, the war is still ripe for political theater pieces like Tim Robbins' punk-rock propelled Embedded which is now playing at the Public Theater.
Members of the "Cabal," the Machiavellian strategists whose masks don't obscure their real counterparts.
When the play, written and directed by Robbins, opened at his Actors' Gang Theater in Los Angeles, liberals applauded. Conservatives took the author to task for lacking in-depth understanding of Leo Strauss' philosophy, the late Chicago University neo-conservative guru who in Embedded is a sort of Wizard of Oz to the thinly disguised masked Machiavellian chorus that schemes to wage war against Gomorrah (the play's Iraq, as Babylon is its Baghdad). Politically like-minded theater goers plus mostly good reviews made Embedded a hit and led to several extensions. It should do as well in New York thanks to Robbins' well-timed plug for the show as part of his Mystic River Oscar acceptance speech.
The production seems to have transferred without a hitch. All but one of the original cast members are on board and they're as good as Laura Hitchcock said they were in her Los Angeles review (below this gray box). V. J. Foster's Colonel Hardchannel is still hilarious as the Nathan Lane wrapped inside the tough guy assigned to toughen up the newly embedded journalists (he sends them off with a rueful "I would prefer you to be in New Haven poised to take on the Great White way with the Next Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Sadly, you are more like a bus and truck company of Starlight Express playing to a half-empty dinner theater in Tulsa").
Being unfamiliar with the Actors' Gang venue, suffice it to say that Richard Hoover's bare scenic design with its raised platform fits the Newman Theater to a tee. The costume changes and sculptor Erhard Stiefel's stunning masks mounted at each side of the stage enable the audience to see Rum-Rum, Gondola, Woof, Dick, Rove and Pearly White prepare for what amounts to the play's funniest Saturday Night Live style scenes. Their "Office of Special Plans" discussions cover a cornucopia of topics: the best way to rationalize war to the public (Rum Rum opts for a combination of "the day that changed the world and weapons of annihilation") . . . how to deal with disastrous news reports from Europe ("Fuck Europe") . . . concerns over CIA leaks ("If you can't trust the CIA to lie who can you trust?"). . . rationalizing sending soldiers to battle as a lifelong civilian (The Cove/Rove character declaring "I hold a deep and profound disappointment at being unable to serve because of my anal cyst."). The TV sensibility of all this also evokes memories of BBC's 1980s satirical political hit show, Spitting Image which used latex puppets to spoof public figures and seeded a short-lived American spin-off, several episodes of which lampooned Ronald Reagan. Unlike that parody Embedded lets George W. off the hook. . .or does it? Perhaps the focus on the "Cabal" rather than the President is the author's way of saying that Mr. Bush is a puppet on these over the top strategists' string -- a common perception that helped Mr. Bush win two gubernatorial elections!
While the soldiers and their families are given some moving passages, I found them rather banal. Their main purpose seems to be to make Robbins' admiration for the troops and their loved ones as clear as his disdain for a too easily influenced, limelight grabbing press and the powers that be on Capitol Hill. The wild exaggerations are in the service of the satirical modus operandi.
Like most agitprop, Embedded addresses the converted who will be amused by the opening announcement -- a warning that any audience members inclined to voice objections during any part of the performance will be sent to a specially set-up protest area. Specifying that protest area as "the corner of 6th street and Avenue D" is probably the single major text change made in the move to Manhattan. Only one man actually needed to be ejected during the performance I attended and that one is, as might be expected, part of the script.
Generally speaking, Embedded has a lot going for it theatrically even though it lacks the satirical power needed to inspire more people to take time to be well informed, to insist on answers to unanswered questions, to vote no matter what the weather. It does manage to make us laugh -- at least for much of its ninety minutes -- at decidedly unfunny and, unfortunately, much longer lasting issues of mass calamity.
NEW YORK PRODUCTION NOTES
Playwright and Director: Tim Robbins
Cast (in order of appearance): Brian T. Finney (Sarge, Cove, Journalist), Kate Mulligan (Maryanne, Gwen, Woof), Toni Torres (June, Kitten Kattan), Ben Cain (Monk, Journalist), Steven M. Porter (Jen's Dad, Dick, Buford T.), Lolly Ward (Jen's Mom, Amy Constant, Woof), Kaili Hollister (Jen-Jen Ryan, Journalist), Brian Powell (Rum-Rum, Chip Web), Andrew Wheeler (Pearly White, Stringer), Riki Lindhome (Gondola, Journalist), V. J. Foster (Colonel Hardchannel), Jay R. Martinez (Perez, Camera Kid), Mark Lewis (Lieutenant, Journalist --originally played by Kirk Pynchon)
Set Design: Richard Hoover
Lighting Design: Adam H. Greene
Costume Design: Yasuko Takahara
Sound Design: David Robbins
Projection Design: Elaine J. McCarthy
Masks: Erhard Stiefel
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; www.publictheater.org or 212-239-6200
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 8:00pm, Friday at 7:00pm and 10:00pm, Saturday at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm.
From 2/24/04 to 4/11/04; opening 3/14/04
Tim Robbins in cast for final stretch-- which extended twice-- with final performance 6/05/04.
Review by Elyse Sommer based on 3/12/04 press performance
"Embedded", the term used for journalists authorized by the United States Government to cover the recent invasion of Iraq, is the title chosen by Tim Robbins for his own coverage of that event, written and directed by Robbins at his Actors' Gang Theatre. Compassionate and scathing, it's a powerful production of a very well-written play with a definite anti-war point of view.
The young soldiers, male and female, have poignant scenes with their loved ones at home before being sent overseas. Especially familiar is one Jen Ryan whose father regrets he got laid off and couldn't afford to send her to college. Wounded, hospitalized and rescued like that other blonde with the Irish name, she protests to her family that she was well treated in the Iraqi hospital, despite attempts to propagandize her ordeal.
Feeling ll treated are the embedded journalists under the tough disciplinary training of Colonel Hardchannel who provides a twist on the usual meanie by couching his commands and threats in theatrical quotes. He could be the mobster singing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in Kiss Me, Kate. A slice of the journalistic life takes place in a bar where a man introduces himself to a woman, not recognizing her as someone he slept with a few weeks ago. He's the same journalist who decides to dis-embed himself in the political sense of the word to escape the censorship imposed on the approved writers.
The realistic ordeal of the troops alternates with a Greek Chorus in masks reminiscent of the Twilight Zone episode in which all the world is deformed, including the doctor who tries to turn a beautiful young girl into a similar creature to conform to their standards of beauty. These characters, who include a woman named Gondola and a man called Rum-Rum, give a Saturday Night Live spin to conspiracy theories.
"If we don't get this war started soon, we'll be competing with the NBA play-off," squeals one of them.
Audience members are warned by an introductory voice-over not to disrupt the play by shouting out their own opinions. They will be ejected and will not get their money back.
Robbins displays an adroit directorial hand, creating a production that's vivid and theatrical, while giving full measure to the soldiers' stories and allowing the excellent ensemble time to make their moments.
Richard Hoover designed the stark set with masks ranged against the wall in a stunning Kabuki effect. The specific and subtle lighting was designed by Adam H. Greene, with spots highlighting each incident, emphasizing the Brechtian alienation inherent in the piece.
Viewpoint aside, this is a deftly composed, artfully assembled and brilliantly presented play, alternating the touching humanity of the soldiers' lives with a satiric and savage portrait of puppets creating war.
---Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock when it opened at The Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood on October 30th 2003.