Mary-Arrchie may be beginning its final season but there’s nothing to suggest it’s slacking off. Rather, with its production of Guardians by Peter Morris, tersely directed by Arianna Soloway, the company reconfirms for the 30th year its standing as a place where drama and social justice go hand in hand.
The play is a pair of intertwined monologues, one delivered by the female soldier who appeared in the Abu Ghraib prison photos (“American Girl,” the flawless Jaci Entwistle) and the other by a British journalist (“English Boy” Adam Soule, persuasively self-satisfied and creepy) who stands in for the anonymous member of the press who staged an Abu-Ghraib-like scene and published the pictures in the tabloids before they were discovered to be a hoax. They never interact and their stories never intersect, but they’re talking about the same thing: power, whether sexual or military. The Girl recounts how she came to participate in the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, with a flood of self-justification which doesn’t satisfy her, let alone us: she was compelled to transfer her prejudice from fellow-soldiers (including “coloreds”) to the enemy and/or she was determined to show strength to her boyfriend by being able to “take it,” whether “it” was rough sex or being photographed harming a captive. But she observes cogently that the people truly responsible for the catastrophe have never been and will never be called to account. Meanwhile, The Boy allows his ambition to become a columnist for a great paper (one of the “Guardians” of the title) to lead him far from anything recognizable as journalistic ethics, while he pursues sexual dominance over a younger man he claims to love. In one of Morris’s most telling lines, The Boy describes how free he felt while abusing his lover, completely swept up in his own pleasure and with no sense of responsibility—“In short, an American!”
Grant Sabin’s stark white set (representing The Girl’s cell in the brig) silently demonstrates that secrets and lies can hide under the brightest light. This is a substantial piece of work, but it’s not heavy—we are engaged with the characters even as we accept them as metaphors for the methods and consequences of abusing power. See this play: through Oct. 18 at Mary-Arrchie’s soon-to-be-demolished theater in Lakeview.
The musical by Green Day receives the best production one could wish for, with a cast wholly committed to the material (not to say hyperactive), fine voices, and some good dancing (though choreographer Katie Spelman might reconsider the use of wiggling fingers in lieu of dance moves: in the context of the show’s general boldness, they look fussy). Director Steven Wilson and music director Andra Velis Simon get the most out of the sketchy book and banal lyrics (both by Billie Joe Armstrong, with Michael Mayer as co-playwright). The scene in which our hero (Luke Linsteadt) meets his lady-love (the splendid Krystal Worrell) is electric as they sing together the group’s pop hit “I Walk Alone.” (Easy irony, anyone?)
The problem is the material which, just like Hair a generation or two ago, reduces its women to adjuncts to the men, who are engaged in the real business of self-discovery. And it’s particularly easy to recognize this flaw because so much of the show seems ripped off from Hair: there’s the rebellious gang of anti-establishment friends, the guy who becomes a soldier, the one whose pregnant girlfriend will tie him down, the one who’s stoned all the time (though in this case it’s by shooting up rather than smoking dope).
This may seem like a crotchety complaint, and people who haven’t seen Hair won’t be troubled by the parallels; but everyone should be troubled by the fact that, nearly 50 years later, we still only notice women as they pertain to or are useful to men. If, however, you can submerge yourself in the performance energy, the music and the dancing, perhaps the neglect of women won’t ruin your evening. Through October 25 at the Den Theatre in Wicker Park.