Circle X's 'Bad Apples' Is Audacious, Exciting Theatre

Circle X Theatre Co. has been one of the best theatre companies in Los Angeles for fifteen years now. One thing the company has never lacked for is ambition, and this admirable quality is on display in their current world premiere, Bad Apples. It's a musical concerning the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2003 and the people involved in it.

Although a musical may not sound like the proper format to deal with this serious issue, playwright Jim Leonard and director John Langs use humor, irony and the directness of music to capture the emotional terrain and intellectual sweep of the history in a way that a straight drama might not encompass. It's not a perfect show—it's a bit long and has focus issues—but the vast majority of the play that does work is nervy, top-notch theatre.

As the story begins, Pvt. Lindsay Skinner (Kate Morgan Chadwick) is being interrogated about her actions in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. She recalls getting into a sexual relationship with the man who would later become her commanding officer, the charismatic Sgt. Chuck Shepard (James Black), while still in National Guard training in the States. Upon arriving in Abu Ghraib, Chuck also takes up with his superior officer, Lt. Scott (Meghan McDonough), creating an uneasy menage a trois. When the abuses at the prison are exposed and the trio are pitted against each other, Lindsay learns the meaning of the word "scapegoat."

Chadwick gives an amazing performance as the cheerfully amoral Lindsay, happily humiliating the "hajis" yet also sincerely in love with Chuck, revealing the humanity behind monstrous actions. Her comedic timing is sharp, her dramatic chops strong, and she possesses a great singing voice as well, shown off to fine effect in "Surrender." Black is convincingly seductive and manipulative as Chuck, but as written his character is still a bit of a cipher. McDonough is nicely flinty as Lt. Scott, and is particularly impressive in a scene where she has to convince an angry Lindsay that she and Chuck have her best interests at heart, where it's intriguingly unclear what Scott's actual motives are. Ian Merrigan is likeable and sympathetic as the morally out of his depth PFC Lingus, and Larry Clarke is excellent in multiple roles, especially as Lindsay's "Uncle Daddy" Burris.

Director Langs executes the ambitions of the play brilliantly, switching from the macro of Abu Ghraib and the Iraq War to the micro of the love triangle, from pointed satire to sad truth, with fluid grace and expert panache. One scene in particular, the musical number "Last Night on Earth," where the 9/11 terrorists go from haggling over prices at a Pizza Hut to a Dionysian party to riding in the fateful plane, complete with rap music and dancers, may be extraneous to the main story but is an astonishing and powerful end to Act 1. Langs is helped mightily by his production team, from Cassandra Daurden's military sexy choreography to Francois-Pierre Couture's vivid prison thrust set, from Jeremy Pivnick's extraordinarily varied and effective lighting to Jason H. Thompson's evocative projection design on multiple video screens.

The thing that's most surprising about Leonard's play is also what's likely to be the most controversial: it's quite sympathetic to the trio of prisoner abusers. It's not at all sympathetic to the abuse and doesn't excuse the actions, but the show takes pains to say that these people were never trained for this sort of assignment in the National Guard (the end tune "One Weekend a Month" makes this point quite well), they were under the psychological pressure of regular mortar fire, and most importantly, they were ordered to break down their prisoners by their superior officers. However, the piece could use more balance between the abuse issue and the love triangle, so as not to seem negligent of the bigger picture. Also, the play would benefit greatly by compacting Acts 2 & 3 together—the show doesn't need to be this long. Beth Thornley and Rob Cairns' songs are tuneful and smart, demonstrating talent at many different types of music, and they take the show to the next level of artistic endeavor.

In the final analysis, Bad Apples is not a perfect show, but it is an exciting and audacious one, the kind of play that deserves encouragement and respect, and it is well worth the time of any L.A. theatre lover.

"Bad Apples" plays at the Atwater Village Theatre through Dec. 1. Tickets are available online.