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Suspicion ourselves

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Until the regional communities of conscience unite with our theater contingent to stage graphic public demonstrations--recitals, let's call them--of "expanded interrogation techniques" already documented as used against government-identified "enemy combatants," we have to settle for the next best thing: the current production of Back of the Throat at Manbites Dog Theater.

God, how I hate ambiguous reviews. If I could somehow pack all of you in to see this show--a clear impossibility, given director Jay O'Berski and David Fellerath's distinctly claustrophobic set--I'd do it. Whenever a work of theater mirrors a desperate injustice in the world this clearly, on some level that world should be obliged to attend and bear witness.

For by now there is no mystery: In our names, American goons are charged with having placed lit cigarettes into the ears of immobilized victims. They have been witnessed shoving baseballs into the distended mouths of detainees, tying them in place with rags, and leaving them there for days.

And if these words somehow singe our readers' tender sensibilities, they should know that these are far from the worst offenses documented--not by outsiders with questionable motives, but internal government documents instead.

When you engage in humanitarian and patriotic gestures such as these, you basically have to have a string of floating, shadowy, CIA-run special prisons, like those The Washington Post revealed last week, in quiet, out-of-the-way places; zones where "ghost detainees" can be turned into ghosts, if need be, with little fuss and less public supervision. At last: our very own desaparecidos.

Since we are unmistakably the beneficiaries of these ongoing tactics, perhaps we have a responsibility to inquire into the kinds of actions being taken on our behalf.

Yussef El Guindi's play is not flawless. It fundamentally reads as incomplete at this stage--a strong first act at best, one that leaves us hanging, awaiting inevitable developments.

By then the "home interview" between young Arab-American Khaled, a naturalized citizen at this point, and Bartlett and Carl, two Homeland Security operatives, has already devolved from thinly veneered civilities to dispassionately administered chokeholds and select contusions.

Khaled's crimes? Hard to say. But he is a writer, with varying degrees of interest in political history, learning Arabic--and porn, since the termination of his last relationship. His library includes tomes on Islam, revolution and political assassination.

Plus he was seen in the same public library as an apparently confirmed terrorist by the name of Asfoor. Khaled's girlfriend was suspicious he was having an affair--or getting involved in something else he shouldn't have been. And a stripper in a men's club is pretty sure it was Khaled who met with Asfoor in a men's room there.

So. Is he a terrorist collaborator or a terrorist in his own right? A writer interviewing sources for a novel? A guy being hassled by a pesky old man from the old country? Or a man whose identity has been mistaken in the dim light of a strip joint?

Perhaps the most useful thing El Guindi's play confirms is that it really doesn't matter. Though it's tempting to call the Kafkaesque cloud of suspicion that Arab-Americans and others suddenly found themselves enveloped in after September 2001 something new, it really isn't. There have always been social and civil crimes--racism, Nazism and sex offenses to name a few--where the allegation alone leaves a permanent stain on the accused. Khaled has to prove that though he has an interest in terrorism, he is not a terrorist. Both Triad Stage's Turn of the Screw and the forthcoming Y2K at Deep Dish similarly trade on characters dealing with the impossibility of proving the negative, particularly in the realm of thought, motive, desire.

Elaine Scarry has commented upon the invisibility of pain as one of the bases under which torture is permitted in the world. But other invisibilities, just as crucial, serve as necessary underpinnings as well. For, unfortunately, innocence is invisible. As we learn here, if you think a thoughtcrime is difficult to prove, just try disproving one instead.

Reviews
****1/2 Ctrl-Alt-Delete, Blue Monday Productions, Common Ground Theatre--In one of the most exciting, edgy--and successful--theatrical experiments we've seen in recent years, co-conspirators Rus Hames and Joe Brack use a crazy quilt of sources including the online notebooks of Richard Foreman, a cabaret on bondage, and contributed material from company members to fashion a sometimes funny, sometimes chilling critique of technology, arrogance and the alienation that results when the two are combined.

Strange Man (Anthony Hughes) intimidates as the unsmiling god of a two-room apartment, and the creator of a group of "bio-anamorphic mechanicals"--life-sized androids who their maker has graced with one or more of his most debilitating sexual dysfunctions. Brack recalls an early Iggy Pop as he bounces off the walls as an energetic, existential innocent, while Merrybelle Park convulses through a particular hell: as a "Dream Woman" a misogynist has created and is still trying to get the bugs out of. Darryl Stephenson supports nicely as Brack's would-be mentor, Monologue Man.

These characters' timid explorations of empowerment and liberation raise a series of unsettling questions about a number of humanity's relationships: with any idea of God, with one another, and with the things we've created. Is it ethical to dictate the "living conditions" of artificial intelligences, or terminate them when they no longer "serve"? Should those sentiences be given the ability to terminate themselves? And what does it say about their creation--and ours--that they might desperately want to?

Strong stuff. Just as strongly recommended. (Through Nov. 12.)

***The Mystery of Irma Vep, Temple Theatre--Will Charles Ludlam's daffy gender bender of a Halloween treat finally make Sanford safe for drag queens? Search me. Temple has scored with imported talent before (in Old, Wicked Songs, for instance), but out-of-towners Chris Dell'Armo and Paul Pecorino, while completely inoffensive, can't exactly be said to put the locals essaying Lord Enid and Lady Edgar in deep shade. Their casting mainly suggests the Temple's new artistic management has yet to really explore the talent base of its own region. Kudos, though, to the unsung Shannon Dalton and dressers Morgan Jarrett and Angela Spivey, without whose heroics this show would come entirely undone. (Through Nov. 13.)

***1/2 Private Lives, Deep Dish Theater--The other show of the week concerning strange monsters from the recent past, Noel Coward's mannered comedy focuses on the strange dating, mating (and punct-u-ating) habits of that breed of two-legged piranha reportedly endemic to the British upper crust. As usual in such affairs, cheerful amorality and inexcusable contretemps can be pardoned only by obligatory, dazzling demonstrations of the quickest wit, provided here in gratifying abundance.

Let me confess: Along with a lot of other regional theater-goers of certain vintage, I can't hear the phrase "Solomon Isaacs" (a line from the play) without recalling Martin Thompson and Lynda Clark's 1990s company of the same name, an enterprise that all but patented their glistening takes on dear Noel.

But here director Fred Gorelick clearly opts against the polished suavity of earlier efforts. At base, Mark Filiaci's Elyot remains a fairly tortured soul, acutely aware at all times that for him happiness, devotion and love are all chimeras. As Amanda, Dorothy Recasner Brown similarly seems a hunter, late in the day, who's been all but cornered by the game. In this show the sparkle decidedly is off--so we can see something else worthwhile (and very human) underneath.

Though the supporting work is variant and occasionally shrill, this work still provides a credible, useful--and unconventional--view of Mr. Coward's script. (Through Nov. 19.)

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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