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THEATER

The best defense

Tim Robbins worried that a chill wind is blowing in the country, but it was no longer enough to merely protest the war -- he sat down and wrote 'Embedded,' a play about journalists and troops in a place called Gomorrah.

November 16, 2003|Richard Stayton | Special to The Times

Tim ROBBINS is not campaigning for governor. Nor is he pitching politics to talk radio shock jocks. He isn't even hustling the Hollywood party circuit to gain Academy Award votes for his haunting performance in "Mystic River."

The Manhattan-based actor-writer-director is in California again to express his politics the old-fashioned way: through his art. He still believes drama can change consciousness. But this time there's a difference: Robbins is speaking out because political extremists won't leave him and actress Susan Sarandon and their children in peace.

This time it's personal. "There was some nasty stuff in gossip pages about one of my kids," Robbins explains. "Just petty, to bring a 13-year-old kid into this. And radio people were using words like 'traitor.' This really made me angry and made me realize that maybe I should write something."

Specifically, Robbins wrote "Embedded," then brought the play to the Actors' Gang, the theater company he founded in 1981. "Embedded" proves to be a surprisingly touching and balanced play about journalists and U.S. military personnel during the invasion of an oil-rich rogue state named Gomorrah ruled by a "butcher of Babylon." (Similarities to Iraq are by design.)

At a recent rehearsal, Robbins directs two performers dancing to a Chet Baker jazz melody. At 6-foot-4, in a black T-shirt and jeans, the 45-year-old looms at the foot of the stage. He studies the dance. The actors move slowly and close. "You make sure to kiss the kids every night for me," says the male character. "And throw the ball around with the boys. They're gonna need someone to do dad things with them."

"You were so sexy in that uniform," says the woman to her dance partner. "I fell in love with that pitcher."

A soldier leaving home for war, his wife bravely repressing tears on what might be their last night together? At the Actors' Gang? The home of in-your-face confrontational experiments?

Along the theater's walls are open dressing stalls adorned with spotlighted commedia dell'arte masks, a trademark of Actors' Gang stagecraft. Robbins typically employs expressionist makeup to provoke satirical nightmares. But this time no garish surreal faces confront the audience. A sympathetic portrait of the individual American soldier emerges from the shadows, inspired in part by Robbins' exposure to military personnel when he portrayed a naval pilot in "Top Gun."

The impact is unexpected for veteran Actors' Gang followers. Even an interviewer on KPFK-FM, a progressive station to say the least, saw the play and then argued with Robbins on the air about the "moral responsibility" of troops who "accidentally" shoot civilians. Robbins refused to be politically corrected, passionately defending individual soldiers' behavior in war.

A cellphone rings. The distracted actors gradually become silent and stare at their introspective director. One actor utters a mock stage whisper: "Tim's phone is ringing, everybody." The performer signals for quiet on the set, as if a powerful Hollywood star must be treated with reverence. Robbins retrieves his cellphone, mutters "I'm not going to answer it" and silences the ringer.

He offers some final notes to his cast: "Tony? When you do your [speech], try to find the joy in it. OK, let's take a break, then a complete run-through. Good luck, everybody! Keep the faith!"

During the rehearsal break, Robbins discusses the process that led to "Embedded." It's his first play written since 1992's "Mayhem: The Invasion," and lessons learned as a screenwriter are evident in its compression and humanism. Although masks are used in a few scenes at a mythical Washington, D.C., "Office of Special Plans," they're neither grotesque nor shocking.

The masked characters Robbins calls "The Cabal" are presidential advisors with names like Rum-Rum, Woof, Pearly White, Gondola, Cove and Dick. Their strategic discussions provide comic relief between poignant scenes of a Jessica Lynch character named Pvt. Jen-Jen Ryan and her evolving romance with a Mexican American soldier. Robbins' embedded journalists, however, get no relief. Their "minder," Col. Hardchannel, addresses them as "maggot journalists." The reporters genuflect to the Army's censorship of their reports. Ultimately, everyone is embedded. No one wins this war.

Examining all sides

Robbins speaks softly, in calm and careful cadences. Pauses multiply while he gathers his thoughts. No simple conclusion seems to suffice: There are multiple sides to every question, and a series of events must be examined before legitimate understanding can occur.

Perhaps such precise speech can be traced to his first five years of life, when little Tim never spoke, despite growing up in Greenwich Village, the son of a folk singer (Gil in the Highwaymen, whose most popular song was "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore").

But being raised a Catholic, with nuns "whacking me on the knuckles" and getting "slapped across the face," probably didn't encourage verbal spontaneity either.

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