Thursday, October 25, 2012

How Many Bad Apples Does It Take To Spoil The Whole Bunch?

From left (standing): Anthony Manough, James Black, Kate Morgan Chadwick,
and Mueen Jahan. (Seated) Sean Spann and Ian Merrigan. Photo by Jeff Galfer

The disturbing events uncovered at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq brought to light a prisoner abuse scandal that shocked the world. No one could understand how such atrocities could be committed by American soldiers; how such flagrant disregard for life could result in the kind of human indignities shown in photographs taken by the very soldiers who committed the heinous acts.

In its latest production, Circle X Theatre Co. is examining the question of how such abuse could occur with a fictionalized look at the motivations of three soldiers based on those who were at the center of the real life scandal. The volatile subject matter considers the question, “Do you love me enough to torture for me?” but extending it out over a lengthy three acts with two intermissions works to its disadvantage, dissipating energy rather than creating the mounting tension needed to reach a satisfactory climax. 

Publicized as a world premiere musical, Bad Apples is really a play with songs rather than a book musical, and is written by playwright Jim Leonard with music & lyrics by songwriter Beth Thornley and film/TV composer Rob Cairns. The songs do not advance the story line for the most part, but instead serve as moments of reflection by the singers, or at other times, as a way to set the tone of a scene. 

The hip hop and rap numbers are the most successful with their dark intensity and hypnotic, percussive rhythms. The strongest happen early in the show and create an imposing atmosphere in combination with Françoise-Pierre Couture’s multi-leveled runway set design rimmed with prison bars and onstage band in a cage. Folksy tunes, ballads, and acoustic songs offer contrast but the point is made almost immediately with each one and they could easily be abridged, or in some cases eliminated, to keep the pace of the show from languishing. More than once I wondered if Bad Apples might not be better served by eliminating all but a few of the songs and returning to a play format.

An expert cast directed by John Langs handles the sensitive material with assurance. Charismatic James Black is Sgt. Chuck Shepard, the soldier who convinces both Kate Morgan Chadwick (Pvt. Lindsay Skinner) and Meghan McDonough (Lt. Scott), to become his lover, resulting in two pregnancies at approximately the same time. Chadwick is especially compelling in her portrayal because we are never quite sure whether she is being naïvely drawn in because of love or whether her growing indifference to the whole experience of war stems from her upbringing. The relationship that develops between the two women gets more stage time than the actual progression of what makes any of them engage in torture. It’s clear how and why they all become involved as lovers. What’s not clear is how that leads to torturing prisoners of war.

Ian Merrigan is strong as the guitar-playing petty PFC Curt Lingus. Larry Clarke, Sean Spann, Mueen Jahan, Lauren Hillman, Mapuana Makia, Lina Patel, and Anthony Manough all excel in multiple roles. Happily, we also get to hear Manough’s terrific tenor voice. 

But for all the outstanding performances, and even sitting close to the action at one of the front and center cabaret tables nearest the stage on a sold-out night, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t more emotionally engaged. Instead I felt distanced from the action and from the very characters I was trying to understand. 

Since the play is staged and the room designed as a cabaret venue, why not use the intimacy of that space to connect with the audience in a more personal way, especially when the characters sing. That’s why people go to a cabaret club, after all. Perhaps I was trying to sort out too many different stories or perhaps it was an intentional lack on Leonard's part to lead me to a specific conclusion, but I was no more able to answer the question of why Abu Ghraib could have happened at the end of the three hours than when the play began. Maybe in the end it’s not one or two big happenings that contribute to the loss of human decency but a more subtle insidious series of events that build upon each other until something snaps. You be the judge. 

Bad Apples
by Jim Leonard
Music & Lyrics by Beth Thornley and Rob Cairns
Directed by John Langs
Now through December 1, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm at Circle X Theatre Co., Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Tickets: (323) 644-929 or online at

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