"The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider" at Florida Stage: A Stylistically Scattered Look at the Poetry of Politics
Apparently the only thing missing from all those great journalistic exposés of the Afghanistan war is a little surrealist whimsy, some precious comic relief from all that torture and Islamophobia. How about injecting a quirky, wisecracking Afghan-American taxi driver or, better yet, an artificial heart that gives anyone who holds it the power to sing every Led Zeppelin lyric?
These ideas clutter Carter W. Lewis' overstuffed satire-cum-fantasy The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider, and they tend to trivialize an otherwise lacerating account of American war crimes in the Middle East. It's a good thing the show's political provocations shine through. In light of Osama Bin Laden's death less than a week before the play's premiere — and the debates about "enhanced interrogation techniques" that have resurfaced in the media because of it — the work is enjoying an added boost of ripped-from-the-headlines relevance.
The world-premiere play, which marks Florida Stage's sixth collaboration with Lewis, is set in the headquarters of a private military corporation clearly modeled after Blackwater. Like Blackwater, which rebranded itself as the ambiguous Xe Services after secret documents revealed that its mercenaries killed civilians in Iraq, the company in Lewis' play has changed its name to the even more truncated and mysterious "e." "You can't even Google it!" one character astutely observes later. The bright-red, lowercase letter that serves as the company's logo hangs maliciously on the wall, just waiting for Naomi Klein to deconstruct it. It presides over the Spartan set of an office table, chair, and computer, the familiar trappings of cold, soulless corporate functionality.
The office is about to be vandalized by Loretta (Laura Turnbull), a recently laid-off e employee whose late husband, a mercenary for the company, was supposedly killed by "friendly fire." But it's a known unknown that he was probably killed by fellow e soldiers on direct orders from the higher-ups after it was revealed that he had extracted the artificial heart of an Afghani man as a trophy, like a savage scalping his prey. Bad PR, this.
Loretta is joined by her wide-eyed daughter Bethany (Elizabeth Birkenmeier), a recent college graduate and slam-poetry performance major who believes poetry can "change time and space." She calls herself the Iambic Penterminator, and her words regularly spill into impromptu, half-completed slam-poetry riffs, which we soon realize is her way of dealing with her father's death, the actions that led to his death, and the crumbling world around her. It isn't long before she's discovered in the bowels of the e building by two rogue mercenaries: Denny (Eric Mendenhall), an emotionally numb 20-something who was never cut out for war; and the older Stack (Todd Allen Durkin), a bitter, ulcer-suffering loose cannon who can barely function outside of combat.
Bethany's capture careens the story into its most impressive set change, a leafy greenhouse sprouting with lush foliage that's owned by Denny's grandmother. He has convinced Stack to bring their captive here, away from the security apparatus of e, mostly so the obviously smitten Denny can get to know her a little better. She's soon joined by the Afghani-American cabdriver (Antonio Amadeo) who followed them. His latest taxi to the dark side has planted him in front of military crosshairs, though he still has time for quips about Dick Cheney, 72 virgins, and iPhone-style "smart" prayer rugs. The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider gets a lot stranger and a lot sillier from this point on — befitting its esoteric title — at least until the atmospheric, ambiguous climax.
Like Lewis' last effort for Florida Stage, The Storytelling Ability of a Boy, Cha-Cha is about the power of youthful artistic expression to overcome the violence surrounding us — an admirable if naive proposition that Lewis conveys well. The wordplay-infused slam poetry that Bethany uses to bend bullets, warp time, and spread Zeppelin could have been spat by an HBO def poet. The acting kudos go mostly to Durkin, though. If Amadeo's and Turnbull's solid performances are imbued with familiar tics that trigger memories of past performances, Durkin's take on his brutal, lonely soldier of fortune is altogether new; he is emotionally unrecognizable in the part.
Cha-Cha is an overly busy play with an identity crisis: Is it serious political polemic, slapstick satire, absurdist fantasy, or some combination of the three? Lewis' dialogue is wonky as a stylistic compass. Perhaps that's part of its charm. Like the mythologized arachnid of its title, this unwieldy play leaves an indelible impression and is just as elusive to pin down.
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