LOS ANGELES – A new self-described “jet-black comedy” in its world premiere production takes on the national American character at the apogee of its foreign “nation building” enterprise. It takes place in a desolate stretch of borderland in eastern Iraq near Iran, where U.S. Army Colonel Ulysses Simpson Armadillo (Bert Emmett – shrewd observers will note the significance of his character’s initials) has been searching tirelessly for the native insurgents who, years earlier, murdered his beloved wife.
Armadillo’s trusty Executive Officer Buckley Dunham (Matt Calloway) is an African-American role; he’s a career soldier under the Colonel’s command, who has become more of an emotional caretaker to this loner/loser than an active member of the military in a position at least somehow in a larger chain of accountability.
One of the recurring jokes in the play is Armadillo’s age, which starts out at 85, which makes sense, as it might be some 20 or 25 years since the original incident happened, perhaps even when Saddam Hussein was a U.S. client. Every few minutes the Colonel has occasion to mention his age, which grows a decade each time. By the end of the play he hasn’t physically aged but has seemingly become one of the undead, a vampire stuck in the Iraqi craw like the ghost of a dead tarantula (not my simile – it’s one of the playwright’s reiterated images.)
Gold ingots “redistributed” and “lost”
Writer Peter Coy recently wrote in Bloomberg Businesweek, “Despite a crying need for better infrastructure, investment in it has fallen in 10 major economies, including the U.S., since the financial crisis, according to a new study by the McKinsey Global Institute. Meanwhile, China is still going gangbusters on roads, bridges, sewers, and everything else that makes a country run.”
Col. Armadillo recalls that moment when he and his army comrades burst into one of Saddam’s palaces and discovered a roomful of gold bullion ingots, which were soon “redistributed,” but who knows where and to whom. When the Colonel relates what happened to his share, he claims that he invested it with a Chinese business partner, who “lost” it all. The playwright surely wants us to think about all the expended treasure we pissed away in our poorly thought-out “nation building” project, which resulted in exactly one new functioning “state” – ISIS – while other less adventurist countries proceeded apace with their own economic expansion.
Col. Armadillo’s obsession to stay put and find his wife’s killers is the central theme. It hardly occurs to him that since the killers’ faces were covered with scarves they might simply have unrecognizably melted back into the “insurgent” landscape. It does not require a theatregoer to be particularly astute to question who is truly the criminal here – the so-called “insurgents” in their own land, or the American occupiers who have flown in from half a world away to rid the land of a despot, but nonetheless a secular one.
He has even become the stuff of legend, the warrior who years after hostilities have ended is still holed up in a remote cave waiting to be vindicated. So much so that a curious New York Times reporter, Madeline Sainz (Jennifer Laks), hoping for the big scoop of her career, braves desert dangers to reach him for an interview and potentially a book contract or two. Over the passage of time, measured not by New York minutes but by Middle Eastern eons, the media have become quite literally “embedded” with the stories they cover.
A fifth character is the Iraqi native, Aminah Abdul-haleem Ali (Shanti Ashanti, interestingly from Tel Aviv originally), whose agenda is also murky. Is she there to avenge her brother’s death by the same hands as those that murdered the Colonel’s wife? Or is she one of the “insurgents” herself?
Armadillo recalls Moby-Dick‘s Captain Ahab. Perhaps even more aptly, Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, the narrator Marlow’s story of his obsession with Kurtz, an ivory trader gone mad in the old Belgian Congo. Conrad questions which is the true place of darkness – Europe or Africa? Is there such a bold line between so-called “civilized” people and “savages?” Conrad was among those of his day, like Mark Twain, who dared to challenge his country’s imperialist and racist premises.
Playwright Gus Krieger, a Los Angeles-based writer-director-producer of stage and screen, could be considered in that company. He seems to prefer his scripts gory. They feature killing, battle, wrath, horror, slashers, and thrillers. The “necktie” in the title of the current play refers to hanging with the victim’s own guts.
The Armadillo Necktie is a mashup of theatrical genres, beginning with grand guignol (torture by electrical current applied to a captive’s testicles opens the show). The captive is Bruce Walker (Morgan Lauff), an unscrupulous mercenary whose loyalties are under suspicion. The action rapidly switches back and forth to farce, satire, slapstick, thriller, revery and dreamscape, and the theatre of ideas, with various weapons on display. Be prepared for sudden turn-on-a-dime reversals of fate as guns and swords are pulled and explosives are primed to go off. There’s even an all-against-all “Mexican standoff” that, like other elements in the play, reflects the inability of forces either to advance or retreat. People can get stuck in this sun-struck time-warp for decades, centuries maybe. Afghanistan comes to mind.
The playwright seems to want to test the limits of our squeamishness, but just as we are about to reach them, the mood is broken by a hilarious quip or bit of stage action. We are emotionally jerked around by one ricocheting countermove after another until our heads spin with confusion. The dialogue races by, and each of the characters has a totally distinct mode of delivery and accent, so close attention must be paid. Direction by Drina Durazo is tight and breathless – perhaps too much so? On a first hearing any viewer is bound to miss a lot of words in the script. It’s the kind of writing that bears reading as much as seeing, so we might pause to pick up all the allusions and cross-references. In the end we have to trust the playwright to have connected all the dots – the emerging image is not easily discerned in one viewing.
What does it mean to “win?”
Asked why write a play about war in the Middle East, Krieger says, “The baby boomers had Vietnam, the millennials had the collapse of the global economy, and my peers and myself – a generation in the middle – had that dusty, amorphous quagmire of cash, carnage, and human life known as “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” “Operation New Dawn,” or – to those embracing its open-endedness – the simple bark of a four-letter, all caps IRAQ. A mysterious conflict, one with ever-moving goalposts and ever-changing objectives, one that upended the concept of “winning” so thoroughly that even the most staunch proponents of black-and-white jingoism were eventually forced to find a mirror and give themselves that long, uncomfortable look called nuance.”
He calls his play “jet-black comedy,” and as a master of nuance he surely must be thinking that Col. Armadillo, who initially arrived by jet with thousands of U.S. troops, is essentially running a maverick, unauthorized “black site,” where torture persists long after the news about Abu Ghraib has faded from the headlines. There seems to be a trend in theater today toward – and I have seen all these terms used – “edgy black comedy,” “nasty black comedy,” “pitch black comedy,” and now “jet-black.” The genre grants space to an almost anything-goes Wild-West free-for-all of politically incorrect speech, lurid, sexist, hyper-real action bordering or actually featuring violence, over-the-top situations and language, all given cover by the protective rubric of “comedy.”
Pursuant to a recent scandal in the Chicago theatre world, some acknowledgment has appeared about the critics’ role in treating such anti-social work as freshly, powerfully “authentic.” Now, please don’t misunderstand: I am not saying this applies to The Armadillo Necktie as a work of art. Yet there are features of the repulsive, torturous and bloody that we are asked to sit back in our seats and accept in good spirits as “comedy.” I know people see stuff like this every day on TV, and it filters into the news once in a while, but I mention this only to say that this crude trend can get out of hand mighty fast, and I am just signaling my apprehension.
Anyway, the Group Rep’s design team including Chris Winfield and J. Kent Inasy (sets, Inasy also lighting), Angela M. Eads (costumes), and Todd Ball and Hisato Masuyama (props), among others, is cracker-jack. There seems to be a palpable esprit de corps at Group Rep.
The Armadillo Necktie plays through July 31, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. There will be Q & A Talkbacks after Sunday matinees, June 26 and July 17. Appropriate for ages 18+ because of mature material and language. For tickets go to: www.thegrouprep.com or 818-763-5990. The Group Rep performs at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.
Photo: Doug Engalla