A program written like a tabloid and the sound of hard rock music blaring set the stage for the raw biting material to come. Embedded, Tim Robbins’ caustic counter-attack to the Iraq war machine, savagely bursts forth with the fresh faced energy and enthusiasm of a college production and the informed satire of a seasoned actor/writer/director whose political views have subjected him to public attack and vilification. Robbins is focused in a way liberal critics rarely are.
The program, cum newspaper, is not simply a graphic designer’s slick idea. It carries articles and information that are key to understanding the material to come. Essential is the article about Leo Strauss, who died in 1973, a professor at the University of Chicago whose views have made him an idol of the neo-cons and who is little known outside of the academic community. Strauss is referred to in a number of the best written, most pointed moments of Embedded.
Structured as a series of fast changing scenes that vary from the poignant, such as soldiers saying their good-byes, to the targeted attack–a chorus of Bush advisors with names such as Rum-Rum, Gondola, Woof and Dick. Between these poles are the journalists, about to be "embedded," and being trained marine style, brainwashed Washington style, and censored administration style. Thirteen actors slide quickly between roles without losing a beat. The transitions seem to take no time as the soundtrack for the Iraq war fills the gap.
There is no question, the highpoints of Embedded are occupied by the advisors, wearing stuffed shirts and 3/4 masks, sitting primly on stools, making decisions about when to invade by looking on their personal calendars and finding a mutually convenient date, ignoring details like military intelligence or the phase of the moon. They are comedic energy and the repository of information that indicates this is no sloppy satire. At one point the advisors become so excited about bringing the invasion to a head that Rum-Rum grabs his crotch and squeals, "I’ve got a woody!" The other five, including Gondola, do the same.
Embedded is not a star vehicle; the Actors’ Gang states we "feel that bios are not in keeping with the ensemble spirit of our company." However, two performances stand out, V.J. Foster as Hardchannel, and Kaili Hollister as Jen-Jen Ryan. Hardchannel’s job is to put the motley group of journalists through some version of basic training before they are "embedded" with the troops. Referring to them as "maggots" he reveals his own feelings of inferiority as he accompanies his shouted commands with show business references to prove to them he is not the uncultured slob he imagines them to think he is. He is marine colonel as bullying Broadway director. Foster, struts, his disdain over the top, the journalists drop at his bark and give him 69 pushups that is.
Jen-Jen Ryan is the young soldier, child of a family that could not afford to send her to college without the military and who is injured in a vehicle crash. Familiar? Yes, art imitates life, this is Saving Private Lynch as Private Ryan. Hers is the one character who is fleshed out and she plays it with warmth and clarity, while also playing yet another part as a journalist.
Embedded is like the most original term paper the professor has seen, but yet the grade can only be a B+ or an A-. One can go years without seeing a paper as creative or spell binding as this, but it still needs to go back for tightening. Other characters need to be fleshed out. Dialogue needs to ring as true as in the very touching scenes of the couples parting, or be as crisp as the chorus of advisors or the colonels training camp.
Very much a work in progress, the play is both entertaining and thought provoking. Raw, like war itself, Embedded has much to say. The journalist who is most clearly Robbins’ voice states, "Like war, hatred keeps us from loneliness (and) gives us community." True, in fact, for those on either side.