Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. opens its 30th and final season with Peter Morris’s brutal, if lyrical, two-person play “The Guardians,” and the company musters up all its strength to do a story about sham-investigative journalism, sexual sadomasochism, and the Abu-Ghraib war-crimes “justice”—if one can use that word. The play compares a fictional case about a British journalist’s fraudulent documentation of war crimes and the story of a fictional American soldier who participated in the real war crimes at Abu Ghraib. “British Boy” (Adam Soule) and “American Girl” (Jackie Entwistle) tell us their stories first hand through a series of back-to-back soliloquies that constitute the play. Both actors give strong leads under Arianna Soloway’s direction whose blocking is also convincing, managing to maintain to retain narrative tension and bringing the audience into a relationship with what are essentially two characters whose stories never intersect. Instead, they are deliver their own stories in what are essentially separate, long, soliloquies.
However, despite good acting and solid production values, Morris’s script has some serious aesthetic problems that no amount of theatrical skill could realistically overcome. Mainly that the crimes perpetrated at Abu Grab are barely mentioned, only fleetingly recounted, and never described in all their horror while the English journalist shares details of his life that most people will find shocking and possibly perverse. In doing so, despite interesting literary parallelism in many facets of the two stories: Guardianship, following orders, making pornography, sexual sadism, and the idea of labeling photographs with words, the argument of the play is lost (his seems like a play that should have a literary and social argument but I couldn’t find it) and the theatrical effect of hearing the two stories contrasted is surprisingly underwhelming. Nonetheless, Soloway’s direction and strong performances by Soule and Entwistle vividly bring both Morris’s characters and the stories that Morris gives them to life.
As the play begins (curtains rarely open anymore) we are presented with English Boy (Adam Soule), a tabloid journalist who assures us that he intends to write for “The Guardian,” a highly reputable, left-leaning, British Newspaper newspaper that also likes to keep an eye on the literary, cultural, and artistic events in the UK. However, to climb up the rung of power of power, he had to work his way upward from the British tabloids: a seemingly endless source of newspapers which trade in highly sensationalist stories and photos. He tells of his journalist career and private escapades which collide when he forges and publishes photographs of British soldiers perpetrating war crimes, ultimately getting caught. He ends up as a conservative columnist, not at “The Guardian” whose title, he suggests, advertises itself as protecting the truth and the public through credible journalism although he strongly implies that the publication is just as shady as the rest of the British Press.
Soule is terrific as a slimy, charismatic, sinister, and shadowy figure whose story slowly emerges. He speaks his lines with great suspense, adding inflection and pauses at important points so that Morris’s arguments are elucidated as clearly as is possible but all the while presents a narrative that maintains tension at break-neck speed. He notes that “turning someone over” is the term for interviewing and presenting the viewpoint of an initially, hostile, unsympathetic subject who he says should be called “victims” rather than subjects” describing the practice as a rape. He repeatedly compares sex to warfare and power (long before that his hobby is sexual sadism). When the English Boy does talk about Sadomasochism, he is extremely open about his involvement in it and describes with the details of his practices, but clearly does not view the lifestyle as being about love and trust. While he never openly and straightforwardly evaluates the practices in which he is engaged, what he does say, and this is brought out, perhaps even produced, by Soule’s subtle glances, smiles, movements, and delivery, seems to indicate that he is skeptical of the idea that it is part of healthy sexuality. Instead, we get the feeling that, much like journalism, he sees it as the practice of highly disturbed individuals like himself.
His story is put back-to-back with American Girl (Jacki Entwistle): a soldier who tells her story, but never talks at length about the crimes she perpetrated because we all remember the pictures (Going back, and glancing at those terrible images performance, I had forgot the full horror of what was done to those prisoners, and would like to have heard Morris’ American Girl describe it just as the British Boy graphically described consensual, not criminal activity). Entwistle is gifted at talking with about the hardships of growing poor in West Virginia, of the abuse she endured from her boyfriend, Charlie in the military, and being incarcerated once she was told that “following orders” was not a valid excuse, especially the deprivation of not being allowed the baby with which Charlie leaves her.
She also soars above Soule, partly but not solely because of Morris’s script, on the level of lyrical delivery (I understand it’s easier to do when you have a more sympathetic part). In her hands she sounds reflective and penitent although the latter attribute is much harder to find in the actual dialogue. Nonetheless, Morris clearly asks us to forgive her, just as Soloway and Entwistle ask us to, without ever having to hear the full magnitude of our crimes. This may be more perverse than anything in the script, but it still makes the whole effect more like a bang than a whimper.
American Girl is presented as purely fictitious so it may be coincidental that a real Soldier called Lindy England appeared in the photos, grew up in West Virginia, had a boyfriend names Charlie in the military, and a baby by him. However, that woman, who stacked naked prisoners on top of each other, forced them to commit sex acts, and terrorized them with guard dogs, documenting all of it, is not languishing in prison as one might expect. She was given a light sentence of one year, and maintains that she did nothing wrong. I can’t help but be concerned that play is asking us to do to American girl all over again.
Thursdays 8 p.m.
Fridays 8 p.m.
Saturdays 8 p.m.
Sundays 8 p.m.
Tickets are $30 and can be purchased by calling 773-871-0442 or online at www.maryarrchie.com
The theater is located at 735 West Sheridan Road (at Broadway) second floor
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