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Lest the country look away, playwrights launch a fusillade of dramas about the war in Iraq

October 09, 2005|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

IN Robert Schenkkan's new play "Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates," President Jefferson's intrepid emissaries from two centuries ago take a wrong turn and find themselves in contemporary Iraq, just before the war. They're greeted by the wheeler-dealer Ahmad Chalabi, who assumes that the president they represent is named Bush.

Schenkkan, who says he's "profoundly angry" about the war, found a sharp contrast between the "noble rhetoric of Lewis and Clark and the reality they discovered. It just opened a door for me. I was finding all these ironic similarities" to events in Iraq and a few other chapters in American history. "Lewis and Clark" opens Dec. 11 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Across the continent, the New York Public Theater has pledged to produce "The Poor Itch," a new play by Los Angeles-based John Belluso that examines stories of American vets who were wounded in Iraq -- as well as the broader expanse of Iraqi history. "Theater is the right place to understand the events of today," Belluso says. "What we're being told is happening is certainly not what's happening."

The Taper and the Public -- theaters that have traditionally supported politically charged plays -- are hardly alone in turning their attentions to Iraq. As the war approaches year three, a new volley of war-themed plays is landing on the stages of the United States and Britain, the countries that led the assault on Saddam Hussein. Most express strong opposition to U.S. and British policies. Many of these scripts will surely have a short shelf life. But most of the playwrights say that the theater offers ways of thinking and feeling about the war that go deeper than the images on TV -- and that the communal experience of theatergoing is likelier to change attitudes than the solitary experience of looking at a screen.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraq plays -- An article on plays with Iraq war themes in Sunday's Calendar section incorrectly said the play "The Madness of George Dubya" opened in mid-January 2004. The play opened in London in mid-January 2003.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 16, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraq plays -- An article on plays with Iraq war themes last Sunday incorrectly said the play "The Madness of George Dubya" opened in mid-January 2004. The play opened in London in mid-January 2003.

James Reston Jr., a historian and occasional playwright who wrote an introduction to an anthology of Vietnam War plays, says a line from that 1985 essay is just as valid now: "The playwright becomes even more important than the historian, for in no other war of our history was the private word more important than the public pronouncement."

The private thoughts of the participants in the Iraq war "will emerge in the arts," he predicts. And although a number of plays are already appearing, "once the war ends, there will be a flood of them, as there was with Vietnam."

The musical "Hair," in 1967, was probably the most popular Vietnam-related play that opened while the war still raged. But many of the most prominent Vietnam-era plays emerged after the war had wound down. David Rabe's "Streamers" from 1976, Steve Metcalfe's "Strange Snow" from 1982, and -- on a more populist level -- the mega-musical "Miss Saigon" from 1989 are among the most frequently revived.

London has been the center of Iraq play activity, but Los Angeles isn't far behind. In 2003 -- the year the fighting started -- theaters in both cities quickly turned out broadly satirical treatments of the war: London's "The Madness of George Dubya" and L.A.'s "Embedded," produced by Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang.

Probably the most prominent Iraq-themed play is David Hare's "Stuff Happens," which meticulously depicts the prelude to war inside the American and British governments. It opened at London's National Theatre in 2004 and at L.A.'s Taper this past summer.

In West L.A., the Geffen Playhouse's season has begun with "Nine Parts of Desire," about Iraqi women. It will end next summer with Sam Shepard's "The God of Hell" -- which, despite the play's setting in the Midwest, employs glimpses of U.S. government torture akin to the imagery from Abu Ghraib prison. At least six Iraq-themed productions have turned up in L.A.'s small theaters this year, including two running now.

Last summer, Shepard's play was featured at the Contemporary American Theater festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. -- not far from the centers of the war effort in the Washington, D.C., area. Two of the other three plays in the festival were even more directly about the war.

Ed Herendeen, founder and producing director of the festival, explains his choices: "The country's at war. We're a contemporary theater. Contemporary theater is about what's happening now."

Unbooked on Broadway

IN New York, off-Broadway and smaller theaters have examined war-related subjects, in part with British imports such as the docudrama "Guantanamo." But Broadway remains a tough nut for such plays to crack. "No one is more militant against the war than I am," says Rocco Landesman, president of Broadway's Jujamcyn Theaters, "but that doesn't mean I want to see plays about it. A Broadway audience comes for entertainment, not to be lectured."

Yet others believe that Iraq plays will eventually find their way to Broadway as well. "If a play were good enough and had a star, yes," says independent producer Margo Lion. "I expect these will start popping up."

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