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New Rock Musical at ACT Theater Looks At Abu Ghraib

John Galfer
'Bad Apples' is scheduled to run at the ACT Theater through Sept. 25.

Eyebrow-raising. Edgy. Wickedly controversial.

Those are probably the best descriptors for ACT Theater’s wildly ambitious new production that opens Sept. 7.  It’s a rock musical called “Bad Apples.” It’s a fictional account based on the real-life Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal from 2003.

If you don’t remember the specifics, you likely remember the photographs from news headlines: naked Iraqi detainees piled into a pyramid; a female U.S. Army reservist dragging a detainee around with a dog leash; a man in a black hood atop a box, wires attached to his outstretched arms.

“It’s tackling really difficult subject matter and subject matter that we as America have not metabolized yet,’’ says John Langs, ACT’s artistic director who is directing this show. “When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, I think it surprised a lot of people that America didn’t always wear the white hat.”

Langs calls himself “a theater maker who likes a great adventure.” He says, “I rarely sign onto projects that don’t scare the crap out of me.”

Credit Truman Buffett
John Langs

Langs first directed the musical, written by Jim Leonard, Beth Thornley and Rob Cairns and, in 2012.  It was staged at the Circle X Theatre in Los Angeles.  He worked for a year to bring the production to ACT, acknowledging that it took some convincing but in the end, he says ACT Theater is all about starting conversations.

“I think loyal faithful ACT patrons expect this of us. And I think they expect once or twice this season to say, ‘Eeesh.’

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Langs.

How musical theater is able embrace touchy subjects:

“People love music; music is the closest way to get to the human heart. You’re asking people into a pretty brutal story, so what leavens that story?

On the storyline of “Bad Apples:”

“When you learn about the characters, it’s like a ‘Peyton Place’ melodrama. Charles Graner got two women pregnant at Abu Ghraib: Megan Ambuhl and Lynddie England [all three were later convicted in the prison torture scandal]. So when you start to say, ‘Who were those people?’ what you have is a very strange love triangle that the play deals with. [It possesses] great tenderness at times and a great sense of humor at other times.”

On drawing conclusions about torture:

“The play says this was the situation that these soldiers were in. This play presents it and let’s you do the math. You have to put it together. I won’t give it away, but ultimately the play ends in an incredibly hopeful way, in a hopeful way that says, ‘How terrible and awful that we couldn’t keep that hope.’”

“Bad Apples” is co-presented with Circle X Theatre Company and ArtsWest. It continues at ACT through Sept. 25.