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Ben Cain and Toni Torres in Embedded
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Anyone who attends the Actors' Gang production of Tim Robbins's Embedded at The Public Theater should know what he's in for; after all, the author's credentials as a progressive social activist are almost as well established as his film career. As a screenwriter, Robbins excoriated the death penalty in Dead Man Walking and lampooned Communist-scare censorship in Cradle Will Rock. How famous is he for his political views? Well, during this year's Academy Awards ceremony, the cameras cut to Robbins and Susan Sarandon every time an award winner said the word "Iraq." When Robbins plugged the opening of Embedded during his own acceptance speech, only the thickest of conservatives could have imagined the theater piece to be an exposé of the "liberal" media.

As its title indicates, Embedded focuses on the journalists that our government has censored during the Iraq War. The recent Comcast bid for a Disney takeover makes the play especially timely; indeed, the growing trend toward a media monopoly has even set libertarian New York Times columnist William Safire into attack mode. Writer-director Robbins dramatizes the distressing facts of wartime coverage in often chilling detail.

At times, it's difficult to distinguish Robbins's satire from reality; at other times, it isn't. In one scene, Colonel Hardchannel (V.J. Foster) trains a platoon of reporters in a sort of boot camp. A Dr. Strangelove for the musical theater set, Hardchannel calls journalists his "bitches" and fondly recalls playing Anna in a German production of The King and I. He orders his soldiers to send all news to an unnamed official who can reject any article by pressing a red button. (The program notes maintain that this is the actual practice of a major news outlet.)

Although the play skewers most reporters as being government spokespersons, Robbins treats some of them sympathetically. One woman pushes the limits of acceptable reportage by broadcasting a graphic, moving account of an air raid while some of her colleagues try, in their own ways, to break ranks from Hardchannel. The "good" journalists present a bleak image of "Gomorrah" (this play's Iraq) while the "bad" ones paint a rosy picture.

With its clear heroes and villains, Embedded doesn't pretend to be subtle. The soldiers are tragic innocents but their stories are so underdeveloped that they are rarely affecting. On the other side is a cabal of masked Washington insiders set on duping the masses. These crusaders have a religious devotion to German philosopher Leo Strauss; in fact, their fixation on him takes up a great deal of the play.

Brian T. Finney and Lolly Ward
in Embedded
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
So, what's all this about Strauss? He was a famous 20th century Jewish philosopher who escaped Weimar Germany and later became a professor at the University of Chicago. He taught Plato, Machiavelli, Nietzche, and Hobbes while calling for the educated elite to defend U.S. democracy. Many people credit him as the founder of the neo-conservative movement and charge that he believed governments should manipulate the naïve populous with "noble lies" that serve the good of the country.

In Embedded, the masked Washington insiders recite from Strauss's books, mold foreign policy to his teachings, and sing a Latin dirge in his honor -- lest anyone miss the point. It's a strange move for a self-described anti-intellectual theater company to devote so much stage time to the work of one deceased philosopher, and it hardly makes for compelling drama. Either Robbins is trying to mock justifications for war with his own ridiculous explanation or he really thinks that Strauss's writings have had a dazzling impact on international affairs; the tone of the play suggests the latter.

The Straussian acolytes have names such as "Dick," "Woof," "Gondola," "Rum-Rum," and "Pearly White." There's no mystery as to the real-life figures whom they're modeled after. One note in the Playbill ominously quotes New York Times scribe Thomas Friedman as suggesting that 25 people are responsible for the war; another excerpts a couple of paragraphs from an article in Adbusters Magazine on the supposed influence of this clan. In presenting the image of a group of shadowy puppeteers pulling the strings of the war, Robbins flirts with some stunning theories; during one of their meetings, the Straussians discuss the strategic advantages of a localized U.S. attack on American soil.

At its best, Embedded is a biting satire of media censorship. Unfortunately, the piece eventually devolves into a hysterical reaction to the influence of certain strains of political thought on foreign policy.

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