Unbelievable! Shocking! Outrageous! “Jerry Springer” it ain’t, but the Yale Cabaret’s “Dark Rooms” is really only a bald bouncer and a few censored words away. Dark Rooms explores some of the cultural issues surrounding the Abu Ghraib prison scandal — issues of control, gender, responsibility, competition and media. Like the would-be Sen. Springer’s show, “Dark Rooms” shows us just how terrible people can be.
The worst part? They’re not making this stuff up.
Dark Rooms is a collaborative project between director Gordon Carver DRA ’06, dramaturge Alixandra Englund DRA ’05 and the cast and crew, written over the course of a few weeks and inspired by images from the torture scandal.
It’s couched in terms of a television talk show called “Shoot or Consequences” hosted by Simon (a stellar Kobi Libii ’07 who channels sexual predator and Johnny Carson equally well) and Steve (Jeremi Szaniawski GRD ’10). Today’s contestant is Libby “Lusty” York (Jenny Nissel ’08, whose initial fragility and eagerness to please are what make the play so compelling), a down-home, softball-playing girl who wants “to make something of herself.”
The hosts push their “contestant” through a series of “rounds,” ranging from a twisted version of “Simon Says” to a Jeopardy-esque quiz show, all the while using their power as rule-makers and breakers. One motif in “Dark Rooms” is the hosts’ willingness to allow Libby to cross the line separating contestant from host; her competitive spirit and the television cameras coerce her into increasingly lurid positions. Taped interviews with Yale professors dissecting the Abu Ghraib scandal and images from the prisons are spliced into the multimedia production.
“Dark Rooms” is in some ways Libby’s story, but to paraphrase/butcher Stanley Milgram, whose Psych 101 experiment is referenced in the show, it’s more about the situation than the person. Nissel’s interpretation of Libby makes it clear that she is the girl next door, even though Libby learns to use her sexuality to gain control and pit Simon and Steve against one another. By the show’s end, we have seen her literally treat a man like a dog.
The talk show format may sound like something out of a middle-school English class skit, but it makes Carver’s point effectively: talk shows, like Abu Ghraib, aren’t hypothetical; they are real life writ large on celluloid, people publicizing tendencies and actions you’d think they’d kill to conceal. It has the same hypnotic effect as reality TV; people like watching ugliness.
A consistent feature of “Dark Rooms” is that it tends to pack in more symbolism per square inch than ought to be possible. The two microphones double as phallic symbols and signs of control; costume designer Rachel Myers attires Libby, the classic red-state girl, in what looks like a red, white and blue beer-garden girl Halloween costume and even the emcee wears fatigues.
The downside however, is that even prefacing the Yale interview clips with “and now a word from our sponsors,” seems charged — is it symbolic that they stand in for the “commercial break” in a traditional talk show?
By equating commercials with social commentary, is Carver telling us that both are emblems of cultural passivity?
In a play where the main character quite literally lets her hair down as she gets increasingly caught up in the game, it’s hard not to treat the whole show like a game of Russian roulette: You never know what words and images might be loaded.
Perhaps naturally for a piece exploring the intersection of sexuality and torture, “Dark Rooms” dwells on S&M. It’s obviously not mainstream, as evidenced by the titters when one of the Yale professors tells us she’s “not well-versed in S&M.” Drawing a link between atypical sexual behavior and the coerced torture of Abu Ghraib by attiring Libby in leather straps and buckles that have become shorthand for “dominatrix” seems like knee-jerk, fundamentalist prejudice rather than any formulated cultural critique.
Even though Carver’s musings stray from S&M to the ubiquity of the media culture, he is ultimately taking a centripetal look at the Abu Ghraib scandal that pivots on the question of what induced Lynndie England, the paper pusher, to become the thumbs-up girl posing with naked, humiliated soldiers. He ignores the plight of the prisoners themselves, consigning them to an (admittedly memorable) epilogue wherein the three main characters read testimony from the tortured prisoners.
And in this context, Libby (or Lynndie, as the case may be) is undoubtedly the victim — it was she, and not the as-yet-unaccused Iraqi prisoners who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As Sen. Bill Nelson’s now famous catchphrase goes, somewhere along the line, she was winked at, and the real perpetrators are those higher-ups who, like Simon and Steve, threw the small-town girl into a situation she was unprepared for.
Libby accuses Simon at one point but then poignantly accepts the fact of the matter.
“For you,” she says softly, “there are no consequences.”
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