Directed by Arianna Soloway
Produced by Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company
“If you are a playwright, America is no place for seriousness.”
Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. opened its 30th and last season this past week with a play that meets their company’s mission statement with its challenging material and outcast characters. Peter Morris’ Guardians looks into the 2004 scandals surrounding the shocking treatment of Iraqi prisoners in the custody of American and English soldiers, the latter turning out to be a (inadvertent) tabloid hoax. While Arianna Soloway’s direction and the actors’ wholehearted performances do their most to make Morris’ serious, political play engaging, unfortunately, it’s not enough to wrest one from the lull of boredom.
In Guardians, American Girl (Jaci Entwisle) and English Boy (Adam Soule) appeal in alternating monologues directly to the audience. Respectively, their stories are connected to the horrifying photographs of American soldiers humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the fabrication of the London media hoax containing photographs of a similar nature depicting English soldiers with Iraqi prisoners. English Boy’s story tells of his ambitious rise from tabloid journalist to full-fledged columnist, while American Girl tells of her desperate flight from the Appalachians of West Virginia to the androcentric culture of the U.S. military. Their very personal tales culminate in their scandalous acts, marking their sudden transitions from anonymity to infamy.
Seeing as Peter Morris, in a 2002 article for The Independent, described America as crass and inhospitable to “seriousness,” it certainly would be ironic as well as confirmatory that I, an American, would find a production of this play boring: “boring” not only sounds like an insensitive assessment, but it even implies that such a production ought to have provided at least some entertainment – or “escapism,” as he puts it.
However, I disagree that the general American audience (myself included) is comprised of crass simpletons who crave nothing but the entertainment of shadows and who avert their barbarian gaze from the piercing light of “seriousness.” That an audience – any audience – might expect a play to delight them by the artist’s clever craft of writing does not controvert that same audience’s respect and desire for “seriousness.” Rather, it demands that if an author has something important to communicate – in Morris’ case, as he puts it, the framing of moral questions – that he or she show its importance dramatically, understanding his or her audience and utilizing the elements of drama.
Guardians, while indeed succeeding in setting the stage in which its moral content may be scrutinized, fails to encourage its audience’s participation in any way other than as an impartial jury hearing a defendant’s testimony. As was mentioned above, the entirety of the two characters’ stories is told to us in monologue form. That is, there is no showing of the drama through the characters’ actions – all the actions are in the past – everything rests instead on the political interest of the audience in the subject and the actors’ solo performances. I do not believe I am being crass in suggesting that “seriousness” can certainly be communicated in forms less tiresome and more dramatically engaging. Moreover, even calling this play a “political drama” would be a misrepresentation, as the play lacks dramatic structure – the individual structures of each story failing to compensate for the whole, leaving only pedestrian curiosity and prurient interest to maintain the one’s attention until the end.
The kind of moral “seriousness” Morris intends to confront his audience with in Guardians is easy to respect as person, but is difficult to appreciate as an audience member. In that sense, it reminds one of performance art with its often condescending presumption of its audience’s attention and its self-righteous rebuke when, after 90 minutes of feeling lectured, its audience nods off. There certainly is a difference between the American audience and Morris’ preferred, English audience, but that difference is not in the former’s disdain for serious thought but rather, perhaps, in how each is willing to engage in such thought: maybe direct confrontation works in England, but I think Americans appreciate a bit more subtlety.
It is more than fortunate for Morris’ play that it is taken up here by a director and actors whose enthusiasm and hard work make the play tolerable and at least mildly entertaining to watch. But don’t attend if you’re looking for entertainment: this is a play for those who take their earnest pleasures from politics – not drama.
Playing at Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan Rd., Chicago. Tickets are $30 for general admission and $20 for students and seniors. For tickets and information, call the box office at 773-871-0442. Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through October 18. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.