Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Armadillo Necktie by Gus Krieger

Bert Emmett and Jennifer Laks - Photos by Doug Engalla

By Joe Straw

“A man must identify himself with something more tangible than his own personality…” – Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent


a greedy caliginous want

Turn, turn, turn
The impious partakers
into poetic figures
because you hunger for an elegiac truth

the consequence from war is not poetic
nor is death poetic in nature

Military occupation
is offensive

If you are out of sight  
we are out of mind

Out of mind 
out of sight




 – Narrator

The Armadillo Necktie by Gus Krieger is a poetic wonderfully absurd examination of military occupation and is also wonderfully directed by Drina Durazo who gives us an exquisite madness from the desert.

Sorry, I have to stop.

The Group Rep presents The Armadillo Necktie by Gus Krieger, directed by Drina Durazo, and produced by Troy Whitaker – June 17, 2016 through July 31, 2016 at The Lonny Chapman Theatre.

Buckley Dunham (Matt Calloway), an African American soldier with no apparent military rank, probably a grunt, wheels in a prisoner whose arms and legs are strapped to a chair.  

A burlap bag is over the detainee’s face like that of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. But, this is not Abu Ghraib, this place is different – “somewhere between Khanaquin and Mandali” near where, in 1980s, Saddam Hussein ordered chemical weapons to be fired on opposing forces.  (Which might explain the behavior of those living in the region.)

But now, Dunham needs to get information, from this prisoner, and by any means necessary. So, ever so sweetly, out comes the box with the battery and the cables.  Dunham attaches the cable to the battery, walks over the cable, and then touches the jumper cable clamps to create sparks much to the muffled cries of the person gaged under the mask.

Dunham disconnects the jumper cables from the battery.

The phone rings.

“What’s up mother f**ker?... chillin’…occupyin’…talked to my little…nuts to the car battery…no you my nigga….peace out Senator.” – Dunham

Duhnam takes off the prisoner’s hood, and lo and behold, it’s Bruce Walker (Morgan Lauff), who definitely is not Middle Eastern.

“I’m not a mercenary. I am a cameraman!” – Walker

A likely story as Duhnam scoffs at his insincerity, walks over with the instrument, undoes his belt, and then attaches the jumper cable clamps to Walker’s scrotum.

“Buckley needs to zap your nuts.” – Dunham

Dunham accuses Walker of being a mercenary and demands information. Dunham had earlier heard about a mercenary heading his way. And he wants answers from Walker.

Walker, in pain from the attached clamps, doesn’t know what he is talking about.  

Suddenly, there’s a knock at the steel door. It’s Madeline Sainz (Jennifer Laks), a NY Times reporter.  After peeking through the window, Dunham brings her in and frisks her.  When she sees Walker, she is horrified at his condition, battered and bruised with cables attached to his genitals.

“Boss man does not want to see untouched nuts.” – Dunham

Madeline demands to see the commanding officer and, as Dunham goes to fetch his boss, Walker confesses to Sainz that he is a mercenary sent to kill. Sainz realizes that she is a part of something for which she wants no part.

Suddenly, Dunham introduces the man of the hour, Ulysses S. Armadillo (Bert Emmett).  He is an indecorous spectacle, wearing a tee, with a robe open in the front, blue jockey shorts, white socks with a red stripe, dog tags, earing in the left ear, and an army belt wrapped around his waist to make his appearance official.

Dunham wheels Walker out of the room so that Armadillo and Sainz can speak.

Armadillo offers Sainz coffee and toast, and tells her to go ahead with the interview. But as the interview begins, Sainz believes Armadillo is off his rocker.

“Vietnam ended 6 months before we invaded Iraq.” “Whales started the revolutionary war.” – Armadillo

“None of this makes any sense.” – Sainz

“I don’t give a f*ck.” – Armadillo

Sainz wants to know why Armadillo is still there since everyone knows he’s not supposed to be there.

“Conviction is 9/10th of the law.” – Armadillo

Moments later, Aminah Abdul-Haleem Ali (Shanti Ashanti), a local Iraqi woman, enters the enclosure wanting help from Armadillo. Someone has taken her brother and they are the same people who are responsible for killing Armadillo’s wife.

The Armadillo Necktie by Gus Krieger has to be seen to be believed. The writing is superb and the acting mesmerizing. Drina Durazo, the director, keeps the action moving at a wonderful pace.

But, I have some thoughts that should help tie up loose ends and connect to the historical background.   

Armadillo Necktie refers to a process whereby one is disembowel, cut from belly button to breastplate, and then hung by the neck with his own steaming entrails.  Ultimately, it is a charming finish for one who is guilty of behaving badly.

L - R Morgan Lauff, Matt Calloway, Jennifer Laks, Shanti Ashanti, and Bert Emmett

First of all, Bert Emmett, Ulysses S. Armadillo, gave a commanding performance with as much emotional depth and layers as you will find in Los Angeles.  This is definitely a tour de force performance that cements his acting persona in Los Angeles. Armadillo is an interesting character in that he believes the impossible is possible, right or wrong, they are his convictions. But, he has some problems.  Number one, he is Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and everyone is coming for him because he just won’t leave. His objective is to destroy the men who killed his wife no matter what it takes and to keep an eye on his distractors before going completely mad.  Everyone should run to see this brilliant performance.

Jennifer Laks is exceptional as Madeline Sainz.  Laks is a stunning woman that lets the words play out in the comedy. She is an actress that provides many layers and also projects a rugged sense of her athletic self. Sainz, although appearing grounded, is conflicted and in an emotional mess as she overcomes betrayal on many ends. But where is that emotional moment where she decides to give herself?  How does that work out?

Matt Calloway is also terrific as crudely jocular Buckley Dunham.  Torture is not his thing.  That’s the stuff white people do to each other.  But Dunham was sent there on a mission and it is not complete.  Someone appears to be pushing his buttons from the outside to get the job done and I think that should be added in his initial conversation with the Senator (not seen).  It’s part of the conflict he must add.  Also, there must be a reason why he so ingratiates himself to Armadillo.  What keeps him hanging on?  And why is he on Armadillo’s side? After all, he has young kids and needs to get back home. He needs to work on both his “attention” and “at ease” – gotta get that right baby, gotta get that right. That aside, Calloway has a terrific way on stage.  His voice is strong and his movements are specific.

Morgan Lauff as Bruce Walker made a bomb and set the timer on infinity, at least it is not set to go off in the near future. Walker is a mercenary, and not a good one at that.  He is lost and confused and those are his good qualities. How could the suits have sent such a bungler? That aside, he has to figure out how to get out of the predicament that he is in.  First, he must convince his torturer that he is not a mercenary.  Secondly, he must convince the reporter, that he is the mercenary, and that he is going to do in Armadillo. Quick, clean kills, and then out.  But that doesn’t happen, because of his bungling personality, which gets into the way of his objective. To add that into his body of work would help make his objective stronger – without the absurd comic facial expression – that should also add to the character.   

Shanti Ashanti is a stunning creature as Aminah Abdul-Haleem Ali.  Ashanti’s voice is clear and her movements are exact. But, Ali is a devious character who tries to get Armadillo to kill her brother’s attackers by accusing them of killing Armadillo’s wife. But that puts her in a various perilous situation, not only with the occupiers but also, with her countrymen. Whose side is she on? This may be something she wants to add to her already marvelous performance.

Larry Eisenberg understudies Ulysses S. Armadillo but did not perform the night I was there.

One can only fall in love with Gus Kreiger’s words in this marvelous play, a remontant rose that has no end, stuck in a time that repeats itself with minor variations.   The play also touches on a number of subjects, war, time, and impotent despair. But, not everything works; one could go with one or two less, “I’m just joking with ya.” This is a strong relationship play, so the relationships must play to perfection.  One character, for reasons unknown, was sent up the river to get “Kurtz” – that didn’t work.  The second man is sent but bungles with each attempt.  Also, it is unclear if the bomb was attached correctly, timed correctly, etc.; Armadillo looks at it as though it were a joke. And no one is concerned that it will go off at any time, which if it were would demand a greater sense of urgency in the characters.  It is as if no one cares about the ticking time bomb.  (Just throw it into the cabinet, hope for the best). Also, time passes oddly in this play, it rounds to the nearest 5th year, Armadillo claims he is 85, then 105, and then again 135, and when Sainz checks her watch, it sends her into her future.  At times, Armadillo speaks in the third person, describing moments that work marvelously.   That said, despite the nefarious nature of war, this is a beautifully written work of art.

Drina Durazo, the director, does some fantastic work. It was an amazing opening that will only get better as time passes and actors get more performances under their belt. There is more to add, and moments to clarify. Certainly some characters require a deeper historical backstory, something that moves with their objectives. But overall, the play is an emotional rollercoaster; a play that digs deep and that touches a deep emotional button in me on the futility of war.

J. Kent Inasy, Scenic & Light Designs, has created a marvelous set; a trailer on wheels, armored and elevated, a great place for actors to do their magic.

Other members of this marvelous crew are as follows:

William Hickman – Fight Choreographer
Lauren Peterson – Assistant Director
Chris Winfield – Assistant Scenic Design
Angela M. Eads – Costume Design
Gabrielle Sciabbarrasi – Costume Assistant
Todd Andrew Ball & Hisato Masuyama – Prop Design
Drina Durazo – Sound Design
Alicia Patterson – Stage Manager
Nora Feldman – Public Relations
Joe Chang – Original Art Work
Dough Haverty + Art & Soul Design – Graphic Design
Drina Durazo - Program

Run! Run! Run! And take a veteran.

Reservations: 818-763-5990

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