While the very idea of a rock musical set against the backdrop of the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal may make many people reflexively cringe, it's not fundamentally abhorrent on principle. There are plenty of musicals that seem like terrible ideas on paper. (A hip-hop musical about one of the founding fathers? That sounds awful.) But attempting an Abu Ghraib musical instantly puts the degree of difficulty for the show at a 10 out of 10. Every aspect must be executed perfectly for the production to avoid landing flat on its face. ACT Theatre's Bad Apples doesn't come anywhere close to sticking the landing.
Bad Apples’s story fictionalizes a real life love triangle between three Abu Ghraib abusers. Standing in for the actual Private Lynndie England, Private Charles Garner, and Specialist Megan Ambuhl are (respectively) Private Lindsay Skinner (Kate Morgan Chadwick), Sargent Chuck Shepard (Carlton Byrd), and Sargent Margaret Scott (Keiko Green). In Jim Leonard’s script, the soldiers provide each other an escape from the mental toll of being stationed at the Iraqi prison, but things get increasingly complicated when they begin a three-way love affair and multiple pregnancies arise. At the same time, photographs of their abuses of prisoners via embarrassing and demeaning sexual parading get leaked to the American press. The intended theme of Bad Apples is stated in the show’s opening number “Love’s No Defense,” which proclaims, “Love conquers all, but love’s no defense.”
The thing is, Bad Apples isn’t really about Abu Ghraib abuses at all. It’s about the dramatized love triangle between these flawed people and just happens to be set against an Abu Ghraib backdrop. And that’s kind of a major issue, as nothing justifies using the volatile setting. Comparative to the relationship drama, there’s actually very little action centered around the abuses. The focus becomes how the the photos leaking to the press will impact the soldiers’ lives.
Leonard’s script cares more about trying to get the audience to understand and empathize with the soldiers committing torture, than the captives suffering at their hands. Bad Apples treats the Abu Ghraib prisoners as props, not people. There’s virtually no effort to humanize them at all. They’re relegated to the background where they’ll maybe get an occasional line or two in a song here or there and then get shuffled along for more about Skinner, Shepard, and Scott’s relationship. There’s literally more time spent fleshing out the characters of Skinners racist parents back in the South than any of the captives.
The music by Beth Thornley and Rob Cairns doesn’t do much to elevate the script. The majority of Bad Apples’ rock and R&B tunes come off as generic and unmemorable (it doesn’t help the ACT continues to present musical where the vocals are way too buried in the mix), but the slower songs find a more natural melancholy groove. A few songs like “Surrender”—where Skinner sings about her submissive tendencies (which could’ve been contrasted with the prisoners’ forced submission)—have a chance to add some weighty ideas to the story, but they come and go without any follow-up to drive home the points. The occasional mid-song hip-hop breaks are painful, coming off with all the stiff awkwardness of a traditional musical songwriter penning a rap part in an attempt to be “hip” and “modern.” (Which unfortunately also fits with the show’s choreography, which appears to be pulled directly from laughably dated ‘90s dance music videos.)
The audience must wait until the finale for the show’s one standout tune, “One Weekend a Month.” It’s a satirically cheery, upbeat, and catchy patriotic ode to signing up for the National Guard, reminiscent of an overly colorful GAP advertisement. And while it’s pretty delightful on its own, the choice to end the show with the number feels beyond bizarre. It makes no sense with the narrative that proceeds it, and it would’ve been the perfect show opener; setting a false the stage for the horrors that would follow and allowing a finale reprise to pack a somber emotional punch.
The actors do a decent job making the most of the messy script. Chadwick’s Private Skinner carries the show with a performance that taps into the soldier’s conflicting neurosis. She makes seamless natural shifts between her gung-ho brazen confidence and paranoid twitchy basket case tendencies. (Alas, Bad Apples also happens to be one of those mildly awkward musical productions where the background characters clearly possess much better singing voices than the leads.)
Bad Apples flounders when trying to find an appropriate tone for its controversial subject matter. Rather than face the ugliness of the situation, Bad Apples attempts (and fails) to deal with the darkest moments through comedy. Leonard possesses absolutely no knack for writing comedy, as each joke falls with a thud (think: a soldier saying “Who’s your Baghdaddy now?”… that’s peak Bad Apples comedy). The second act even opens with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney gleefully belting out a “humorous” sing-along a tune about waterboarding (“Pour Another Round”) in a fictional Iraqi bar. And that’s somehow the most direct moment addressing torture in the entire show.
In an even more bizarre non-squitter turn, act one ends with scenes depicting a pair of 9/11 hijackers eating their last meal on September 10 at a Pizza Hut and then going out on the town. The Pizza Hut dinner is an entirely surreal scene, as the two soon-to-be mass murderers argue about coupons and having pork on their pizza. It’s almost a dark-as-midnight short one act play unto itself, and makes no sense in the context of Bad Apples, further mucking up the tone. It seemingly straddles the line between poking fun of the men and making them seem like regular everyday people. Again, Bad Apples puts effort into humanizing the 9/11 hijackers, but not the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
The script never even gets around to addressing what actual punishment Skinner, Shepard, and Scott receive for their crimes. It just doesn’t seem to care enough. The tone makes the responsibility for the abuses seem irrelevant. Sure, Sargent Scott eventually berates a reporter for questioning her when no one in the higher chain of command was punished (despite clearance for such interrogation methods going all the way to the top), but by that point any attempt at genuine commentary has lost all potential for impact.
Bad Apples ends up being discomforting in all the wrong ways. The show is shockingly safe and reserved, never striving to make the audience face the actual inhumanity of Abu Ghraib. This is a sexualized story about Abu Ghraib – we should feel uncomfortable watching it. Having a couple women touching each other on a bed in their undergarments and defusing human rights abuses with bad attempts at jokes doesn’t do that. Bad Apples is only cringe-worthy because it’s bad theater.
Thru Sept 25, ACT Theatre, $35–$45