This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain for KCRW.
There's something profoundly disturbing about the world premiere musical Bad Apples at Circle X Theatre Company.
Take a scene that happens right before the first intermission:
We're in a Pizza Hut with Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari the night before they fly into the World Trade Center. They're arguing about who forgot the 20% off coupon and whether they can get the 'meat lover's pizza' without pork.
Now, regardless of your politics, you probably find at least part of that scene offensive, maybe even exploitative. It's horrific, right?
Here's the problem: I laughed. And I wasn't alone. It's a darkly funny scene. Somehow, against my better judgement, the situation got the better of me.
Take that to the extreme and you are at the heart of the complex and wonderfully manipulative musical Bad Apples.
To strip it down to it's simplest level, the musical is the story of how four National Guard Reservists found themselves running the Abu Ghraib prison. And then, were captured in snapshots of torture broadcast around the world.
Playwright Jim Leonard takes inspiration from the real life salacious details of the soldiers involved to imagine, of all things, a love story.
A polyamorous love story that tackles the question 'How could this happen?'
The musical's answer: "They did it for love."
As shocking as that is, by the end of two and a half hours, you're willing to believe it.
The evening bounces between a docudrama structure focusing on the four soldiers and a cabaret of context that ranges from a Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield sing-a-long to a rap song about torture. It's dizzying in both scope and style.
What keeps it all together is the remarkable commitment and passion of director John Langs and the four lead actors - who take characters that we'd rather dismiss and make them morally complicated and compelling. They all resist playing the easy stereotypes and instead dig towards a deeper, though disturbing, humanity.
That's the common and manipulative thread of the evening. You find yourself laughing at the detestable, aroused by what at first seems repugnant, and tapping your toes to a tune about torture. It's a wonderfully confusing and morally disorienting experience. You become aware of doing things you'd rather not - like laughing at terrorists.
Bad Apples isn't a perfect piece of theater but it's an important piece of theater. It's asking difficult questions in sophisticated ways. It's also the kind of theater that can only be born in a small theater. It's too risky politically and aesthetically. Circle X took that risk and it payed off.
It's not often you get to say - go see a musical about torture - but don't miss this one.
Bad Apples plays at Circle X Theater Company in Atwater Village through December 1.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with two 10 minute intermissions
Banner image: (L-R) Anthony Manough, Sean Spann, Meghan McDonough, James Black, Kate Morgan Chadwick, Larry Clarke, Lauren Hillman, Lina Patel Michon and Mapuana Makia in Bad Apples. Photo by Jeff Galfer