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A CurtainUp Review

Never let the truth stand in the way of what they want to hear. --- Lee Pace as English Boy

Lee Pace in the Guardians
Lee Pace in the Guardians
(Photo: Brian Michael Thomas)
While political theater has become soft-headed agitprop (see Embedded and Fear Itself: Secrets of the White House, linked below) The Culture Project consistently manages to acquit itself with honors. In presenting plays such as Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom and The Exonerated, its politics tilt to the progressive and often subvert the status quo. Their new Edinburgh Fringe import, Guardians, is thoughtful and thought provoking, if not quite provocative.

Playwright Peter Morris' canvas is the Iraq War circa May 2004, when two overlapping events came to worldwide attention. In America, Army Pfc. Lynndie England became the poster child for prisoner torture abuse at Abu Ghraib. Her likeness was captured in a pair of photos taken on her 21st birthday: Here, she stands beside a pyramid of naked detainees, puffing on a cigarette that barely conceals a Cheshire grin. There, she holds a dog leash fitted tautly around the neck of a prisoner as he lies incapacitated. Meanwhile, in the UK, just as this story was breaking, readers of the tabloid Daily Mirror were treated to their version of prison tortune photos. But after an inquiry, the images were revealed as fakes. While the Mirror's editor was forced to step down, Morris asks to consider what might have happened to the cunning writer behind the charade.

The schematic of Guardians, as a two-character monologue, is deceptively simple. But the playwright's juxtaposition of characters known generically as "American Girl" and "English Boy", make this a work contrasting class, gender, ethics, as well as the prevailing strategies in the War Against Terrorism.

Lee Pace, heartbreaking as a transsexual in A Soldier's Girl, has a devastating turn as a tabloid journalist who finds ethics "presumptuous." It is his descent into the gay SM nightlife of London that inspires him to stage the torture photos that jumpstart his career. The Texan-born Pace plays an urban sophisticate, so it's well within his job description to toss about cynical and dry-as-a-martini lines. Only when he courts sympathy for his spiral do you draw back.

Playing a too-close-for-comfort Lynndie England, Katherine Moennig has the harder role. While Pace uses a to-the-manor-born British accent to full effect, Moennig's attempt at a W. Virginian drawl is a bit overwrought -- distracting from an otherwise focused performance. The most striking choice about her Lynndie England is that she's all ears. Scrubbed of any vanity, with her lobes pushed forward, it's a striking visual of denial and compartmentalization. While her British counterpart is ambition writ large, her goal is modest. She wants to merely make it beyond City Limits.

So many issues can be extrapolated from the evening. Its run opens just as we mark Iraqi Freedom Day, making three years since that statue of Saddam was toppled in Firdos Square, and, as the administration has stated, "we were greeted as liberators." The play also debuts just as Seymour Hersh writes in The New Yorker of planned nuclear strikes to Iran and George Bush immediately dismisses his claims as "wildly speculative." While Guardians doesn't have the frisson of Riot Group's Pugilist Specialist, it does force us to confront closely held beliefs about despair, humiliation, and nihilism. But it leaves unanswered questions about ultimate accountability - and how to respond to an administration that choruses "We Do Not Torture," even as the proof mounts in Guantanamo Bay, in Abu Ghraib, and in covert prisons across Eastern Europe, Thailand, and Afghanistan.

The power of artifice or impressions, of soundbites and snapshots is undeniable. According to Guardians, it's game over. There's no counter-offensive to be mounted, nor one on the foreseeable horizon. Are substance and accountability artifacts?

Kudos to Morris for tackling such contested terrain, even as our volatile history continues to unfold. With language as glissading as his scandal sheet scribe's, it's easy to be seduced, while all the more difficult to empathize with the inarticulate England simulacrum as scapegoated white-trash. But maybe, that's his point.

The Exonerated
Fear Itself: Secrets of the White House
David Hare's anti-war drama Stuff Happens also, opening this week, after productions in London and Los Angeles.

Written by Peter Morris
Directed by Jason Moore
Cast: Lee Pace and Katherine Moennig
Lighting design by Garin Marschall
Set design by Richard Hoover
Costume design by Michelle R. Phillips
Running time: 2 hours minutes without intermission
Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm; Saturdays & Sundays at 3:00pm. Show runs April 1-May 25th.
The Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street (corner Lafayette) 212.307.4100
From 4/01/06 to 5/25/06; opening 4/11/06
Tickets: $46 general admission; $21 student rush one hour before curtain.
Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on an April 8th performance.
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