Circle X Picks Bad Apples From the Abu Grove

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James Black and the cast of "Bad Apples"

Some governments have called it “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “special methods of questioning.” No matter the euphemism, the use of torture during modern warfare continues, in spite of multiple human rights organizations keeping a watchful eye. But few cases were more disruptive to our national psyche than the torture and abuse scandal in 2004 at the US Army-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Jim Leonard

Playwright Jim Leonard — whose 2009 play Battle Hymn was one of two that tied for best new play honors in that year’s LA Weekly theater awards — was intrigued by the Abu Ghraib story and how its horrors happened. Described as a “cousin” to Battle Hymn,  Leonard’s Bad Apples uses a rock-n-roll score juxtaposed with scenes to offer perceptions of a romantic but twisted American tale. Apples opens this Saturday in Atwater Village, produced — as Battle Hymn was — by Circle X Theatre.

Inspired by the true events surrounding Abu, but not wanting to write a biographical drama or an elaborate history lesson, Leonard focused on one important aspect from the event — the things we do for love.

“I was specifically intrigued by the love triangle,” Leonard says. “These three people were sleeping with each other”¦and all during that period they were also torturing prisoners.”

The “three” include Lynndie England, Charles A. Graner Jr., and Megan Ambuhl””among the 11 US military personnel who were convicted of abuse against the prisoners of Abu Ghraib.

With his TV writing/producing experience from Showtime’s serial-killer hit Dexter, Leonard is no stranger to finding the life-affirming within the gruesome as well as weaving complicated stories around relationships. Inspired by a few articles on the Abu incident, Leonard began inventing fictional character profiles — with made-up names — and crafting potential scenes between his characters, who were torturers, lovers and military personnel running a prison on the other side of the globe.

“I’ve learned if I do too much research, I can’t write,” Leonard notes. “So I do my research in reverse. After I’ve written it, I research the stuff and fix it.”

Rob Cairns

But as fascinating as the subject matter and its power relationships might be, Leonard faced a practical problem in staging the darker elements of torture and the S&M lifestyle that his fictional characters regularly engaged in. He looked to the plays of Brecht or musicals such as Cabaret and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He knew he was creating a hybrid — a play with music.

“I didn’t want to show all these horrible things but I wanted to talk about them,” Leonard states. “That’s when I knew they had to sing about it.”

Leonard approached colleague and collaborator Rob Cairns, a composer who works primarily in television, and singer/songwriter Beth Thornley to co-write the musical numbers for his growing patchwork of scenes that were becoming a full-length play.

Cairns and Thornley began attending the Circle X Writers’ Group meetings when new scenes were being read. In the beginning, Cairns wasn’t completely sold on the idea of music to augment the already powerful scenes of the play. But then Thornley wrote the first song, “Surrender”, a love song about bondage.

Beth Thornley

“The tone of it is actually much less about Abu Ghraib and torture and more about the inner lives of these people,” says Cairns. “And that’s where I certainly became more inspired.”

An agreement was made to create “stand-alone songs” with a classic rock-n-roll flavor befitting the early 2000s and the music being listened to by military serving in the early part of the Iraq war. Members of the creative team fueled ideas between one another. Scenes influenced songs, and songs led to discoveries in the writing.  Among the topics explored were relationships between prisoner and captor, the families back home, the world of the order-taking military and the influence of people such as Donald Rumsfeld.  Bad Apples was finding a voice of its own.

“It’s like a study of human nature,” Thornley says, describing how she created some of the songs around events about which she had no first-hand knowledge. “You have to open your mind a little bit more before you pre-judge and try to understand there is a gray area out there; it’s not all black and white.”

In fact, the question remains with all three about what would anyone else have done in the situation the young and impressionable Abu Ghraib soldiers found themselves in at the beginning of the Iraq war.

James Black and the cast of "Bad Apples"

The ability to create the scenes and songs without being judgmental or overtly political became a defining quality of the process. Whether it be a soldier, a voice from home or a born-again Christian, the drive to make expressive songs and scenes ring true without mocking an individual’s point of view was important. Cairns even offered the adage: “One person’s damage is another person’s strength.”

Apple’s set combines a hip, night-club, dungeon-esque atmosphere with plenty of steel prison bars and a live house band. Transformation of the spacious Atwater Village Theatre will be made complete with some table seating close to the stage as well as traditional rows of audience along the back. The club vibe is another way in which Leonard hopes the subject matter might connect with audiences while touching on such a dark moment in recent US history.

“Some people don’t even know what happened there,” Leonard says. “Abu was the first event in modern warfare that was filmed by the people who were in it”¦and that was also fascinating to me. It’s the first Facebook war.”

In fact, Leonard’s “reverse research” process uncovered several unsavory aspects to the wide range of behaviors embedded in the participants in Abu Ghraib and their use of digital media and the internet to document and communicate their activities. Those factual points tell the chain of actual events through fictional connective tissue.

“The real question,” Cairns says of his approach, “is how do salt-of-the-earth, red-blooded American heartland dwellers turn into people that torture other people? What are the stages that allow them to do that?”

The cast of "Bad Apples"

With the script and musical numbers taking the audiences through each of those stages, the creative team hopes that audiences will join in the exploration of “why” rather than look for political statements or blame for the events.

“Musically we try to take them on that journey through some of the songs,” says Cairns. “We want to understand these people and not be so on-the-nose about it.”

“And people also need to understand what happens when we go to war,” adds Thornley. “Is war what we really want to do –  because this [behavior] is part of that.”

As far as the real Abu Ghraib, no one above the rank of sergeant was prosecuted for the crimes committed at the prison. And the 11 military personnel who were prosecuted were mostly following the orders of those higher up, according to Leonard.

“There were a lot of times when I said, “˜Oh, we can’t say that; we can’t do that,’” says Leonard. “”¦and then we did it anyway.”

Bad Apples, Circle X Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles 90039. Opens Oct 13. Fri””Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through Dec 2. Tickets: $22 ““ 28. Opening night tickets $35. www.circlextheatre.org. 323-644-1929.

***All Bad Apples production photos by Jeff Galfer

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