Of all the dark stinky messes left by the departing Bush administration, perhaps the most distasteful is the legacy of the torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and who knows how many secret interrogation sites. It still seems incredible that the tacit policy of Bush's "War on Terror" was that prisoners were to be humiliated, beaten, and tortured to gain information. But what if the real reasons for "harsh interrogation techniques"—in official Bush parlance—were even more disturbing? What if the torturers were reflecting the twisted undercurrents of sexuality and power that are part of our normal peacetime society?These are some of the questions raised in Peter Morris' intense two-hander Guardians, in its West Coast premiere this week at Absurd Reality Theatre. (Disclosure: ART previously staged Longenpalooza, readings of my own short pieces.) Winner of the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe "Best of Festival" award, Guardians is a set of interrelated monologues by two characters known as the American Girl and the English Boy. Both are involved in the events of Abu Ghraib, but from very different perspectives. The Girl's story is based on that of Lynndie England, the American soldier photographed while pointing and laughing at the naked Iraqi prisoners she helped humiliate. The Boy's story derives from an odd event around the same time, when left-leaning British newspaper The Daily Mirror published a damning picture of British soldiers torturing Iraqis. Later it was discovered the image was a fake, Photoshopped from sadomasochistic pornography. In Morris' version, the photo comes from the English Boy, a Fleet Street journalist with a caustically cynical view of the press in an S&M relationship with his male lover.The show's director, Amanda Stoddard, admits that she came across the script not through her theatrical connections but through her interest in social activism. "It was a Google find," she says. "I was doing research about Abu Ghraib, read the reviews, and decided I should get a copy." Stoddard then decided not only that it would be a good piece for ART, but that she wanted to direct it. "It resonates deeply with me, because it's not just about who's responsible. It's really about how in some ways we're all responsible. And since it's a cast of only two people, I thought it would be manageable as my first directing project."Morris humanizes his characters not by absolving their actions but by delving into the sexual motives behind their violent mistreatment of prisoners. Growing up poor and uneducated in rural Kentucky (as England did), the American Girl thinks of physical abuse as a routine component of sex, an emotional connection to her soldier boyfriend. So in a sick way, their treatment of the prisoners becomes foreplay. Similarly, the English Boy describes in vivid detail how an early spanking session with his submissive boyfriend transformed the predictable routine of intercourse into a transcendent state."We have this image of the rapist as the big bad man, capable of unmotivated violence," says Stoddard. "But this play is about the way rape and sexual abuse are also about domination, about needing to be above somebody. That's way more disturbing, because that's something we all feel at some time or another. That's why I believe people have been so hesitant to prosecute these abuses, because secretly we share that guilt."The political topicality of the show is a first for ART, whose earlier plays have been an eclectic mix of psychological drama (House of Yes, Seascape for Shark and Dancer), comedies (Complete Works of William Shakespeare), and odd one-off evenings, including the recurring Compulsion Project. I'd given the company a hard time for its most recent show, Angels in America, because I saw little social/political relevance in performing Kushner's '80s-centric script today. But the timeliness of Guardians is irrefutable—particularly as calls for the prosecution of Bush officials are growing louder, and president-elect Obama weighs his promise to close Gitmo for good.But surprisingly, while she's looking forward to the post-play conversations, Stoddard's not sure that punishing the guardians is the way forward: "I enjoy Bush-bashing. But the focus needs to be in admitting our own complicity, instead of just focusing on which individuals were responsible." Hear that? She and Morris are talking about you guys in the audience, which is sure to spark some real arguments after the show, instead of just the usual safe political platitudes.
Guardians Absurd Reality Theatre, Theater Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S., 800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com. $10–$15. 8 p.m. Tues. & Wed. through Jan. 21.