Tom Lehrer once said -political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.- In the 30 years since, there have been many people who have tried to keep political satire relevant. Italian playwright Dario Fo, Yugoslavian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, and British writer Harold Pinter are among the few who have succeeded-but here in America, there has been a noticeable void. Where is the Swift of this generation, when can we look forward to The Threepenny Opera, the Catch 22, the M.A.S.H. of today?
Those hunting for topical political satire should look no further than The Actor-s Gang for a farcical look at the current conflict in Iraq. The satire is titled EMBEDDED and its author is Tim Robbins.
Most people know Robbins from his starring roles in movies like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and MYSTIC RIVER, but Robbins is no stranger to political satire. His 1992 film BOB ROBERTS was about a folk-singing Republican and his 1999 film CRADLE WILL ROCK was an Altman-esqe romp about censorship in the 1930-s.
EMBEDDED however is much more direct than these previous works. The political parody is set in a land called Gomorrah where a war is underway to unseat -the Butcher of Baghdad.- A perky, female soldier named Private Jen-Jen Ryan is captured and then made a hero after a staged rescue-and all of this is covered (or not covered) by a handful of embedded reporters who go to boot camp and do push-ups while chanting -I am a maggot journalist.-
The coup de gr-ce, however, is the Greek chorus of neo-cons. This gang of grotesques (complete with hideous commedia dell'arte masks) masterminds positive spin for the coalition forces and recites incantations to conservative icon Leo Strauss-and with names like Cove, Rum-Rum, Gondola, and Pearly White, there-s no mistaking at whom Robbins- is taking aim.
The dictionary definition of satire is -the use of irony, sarcasm, or caustic wit to attack or expose folly, vice, and stupidity- and make no mistake, Robbins is on the attack. For those who feel that -folly, vice, and stupidity- accurately describe the current foreign policy coming out of the White House, this play will no doubt score a direct hit. Robbins has done his homework on the ideological roots of neo-conservatism and so these scenes not only attack but also expose. The recitation of one Straussian quote left the audience so stunned you could almost hear people-s minds turning during the ensuing silence.
Unfortunately, the scenes that take place in Iraq, oops Gomorrah, fail to reach these same levels of satire. Of course with all the media saturation involving the current conflict, it would be hard for Robbins expose much that is new. Some scenes are amusing and others, like when a soldier admits that he opened fire on innocent people, are quite moving-but the scenes with the soldiers and journalists just don-t contain the same blissful comic absurdity of the conservative chorus.
The reason perhaps is that despite his research (and the program is chock-a-block with footnotes, excerpts, and recommended reading) Robbins has not witnessed the war first hand. He has experienced the results of speaking out against the current administration and this no doubt provides much of the bite to the beltway banter of the chorus. But regarding the events over there, Robbins must ultimately rely on the same information available to everyone else: the reports of others. It-s not surprising then that the great American war satires of years past were written by men who were there: Heller, Vonnegut, and Altman all saw action in wartime service.
This is not to diminish Robbins- play, but merely to put it into perspective. Time will tell if Robbins- view of the Middle East is highly prescient or hyperbole.
But for now, EMBEDDED is an exciting local production. The dearth of political works in the marketplace these days makes its appearance all the more welcome. It-s worth noting that the play has proved so popular that it-s sold out and will have to extend into January. Robbins- play may not succeed in making the red states turn blue, but if nothing else EMBEDDED proves an old theatrical adage wrong. At The Actor-s Gang, satire doesn-t close on Saturday night.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.