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Uses of Terror

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Bombs in the Ladies Room

Thirteenth Tribe

at Yello Gallery

By Carol Burbank

Timothy McVeigh is currently the most publicly excoriated American terrorist, but he wasn't the first. We just don't hear as much about the others, whose crimes are often smaller--perhaps their bombs didn't detonate, or they never even got to plant them. Maybe they left a bomb where news cameras had limited access, and the shattered glass of a multinational office or bank building didn't become an emblem of betrayal overnight.

Don't get me wrong: the escalation of terrorism in the U.S. saddens and frightens me. I don't have the stomach or the confidence of moral absolutism to support political violence from any perspective. We've all seen the bloody stretchers and grief-swollen faces left in the aftermath of an explosion. But there are uncomfortable gray areas hidden by the vivid images replayed ad nauseam on the nightly news. And one of the most troublesome issues, especially when real destruction is averted, is this: what punishment suits such a crime?

Playwright-performer Megan Rodgers, a member of Thirteenth Tribe--which relocated here from New York a few years ago--wants us to examine that question as witnesses to her solo show. In this visually stunning production, Bombs in the Ladies Room allows our McVeigh-saturated brains to fumble with the morality and isolation of female terrorists subjected to an arguably cruel high-tech form of political persuasion, the experimental Lexington High Security Unit in Kentucky.

The Lexington experiment, documented in Nora Rosenblum's 1990 PBS film Through the Wire, isolated women convicted of terrorist crimes in brightly lit white-painted cells in the basement of Lexington Penitentiary. In a form of sensory deprivation, fluorescent lights were kept on 24 hours a day, and the women were awakened every hour when they slept; they were mostly denied visitors, books, and natural light. Two of the four women in Rodgers's play were imprisoned not in Lexington but in similar cells in Germany, but the common goal of the experiments was to secure information from the prisoners and persuade them to renounce the political convictions that led to their terrorist acts. According to the playwright, the experiment was shut down in 1989 after the ACLU won a suit against the Bureau of Prisons for first-amendment violations. But Rodgers claims that similar units are being built in many of the new prisons across the country.

Hence the urgency behind this postmodern collage of a play, which blends the life stories and words of four actual prisoners with the writings of American radical feminist Robin Morgan, author of the autobiographical Demon Lover, and an anonymous Arab woman who sent a taped account of her work as an assassin to Italian playwright Franca Rame. Although Rodgers makes the women's crimes relatively clear, the prison cell is her main criminal, an ominous fluorescent landscape.

The women who serve time in this landscape are filtered through Rodgers's performance: she gives her script a mishmash of accents and attitudes that together provide a sense of the terrorists' eccentricity. The historical characters are Ulrike Meinhof, a German children's-rights activist and founding member of the Baader-Meinhof gang; Silvia Baraldini, an Italian citizen still serving a 43-year sentence for helping a member of the Black Liberation Army escape from prison; Irmgard Mšller, who bombed a U.S. military base in Heidelberg in 1972, killing three servicemen; and Alejandrina Torres, a Puerto Rican nationalist with the FALN, arrested in 1983 and charged with possession of weapons and explosives. Of the four, only Mšller was released (in 1994); Meinhof was found hanged in her cell, and Baraldini and Torres are serving time in minimum-security prisons, still suffering lasting physical and psychological problems from their months of sensory deprivation at Lexington. None was isolated for more than two years.

Malcolm Nicholls, the sound and visual designer, worked closely with director Joanna Settle to create an environment that would assault the audience's senses without creating the deadening effect the prisoners experienced in their white world. Part art installation and part stage, the basement of Yello Gallery has become a stand-in for the penitentiary, its walls and exposed pipes painted stark white throughout. The walled-off corner where the performance takes place creates a cell within a cell.

The cell is abstract, dressed simply with suspended fluorescent tubing; scattered, intrusively angled glass mesh windows; and a curtain of extension cords dividing the stage environment in half. There is nowhere comfortable to sit except in the audience. A thigh-high wall divides us from the playing area, but with the whole space painted so starkly it's only a suggested barrier. We may be witnesses, but we also become the prisoners' allies by sharing their bleak environment, with its shattered windows and hanging cords suggesting other, more physical tortures.

Lights shock on and off in subtle combinations of white, white, white. Music and voice-overs interrupt our thoughts and the prisoners' meditations. A running slide show of phrases and occasional images breaks the tedium of the white walls, highlighting repeated phrases like "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life..." In this bleak environment, ironic moments lift the mood--a Vanna White-style "tour" of the facilities introduces us to the ideology of the architecture. There's even a jibe at American TV monoculture, with a still and voice-over from Married... With Children to introduce a monologue about the meaning of color TV in an isolation cell. The audience is left to imagine the reasons jailers would allow prisoners to have a television, but the media jibe is an effective reminder of our own dependence on the little entertainment box.

Rodgers is clearly trying to broaden her critique of prisons into a cultural indictment. Embodying all the women and employing multiple accents, which unfortunately sometimes blurs them into one Euro-toned character, she manages to become Everywoman. Voice-overs fill out the prisoners' stories, offering details that they cannot because of the 24-hour surveillance cameras in their cells. As Everywoman, Rodgers seems to be asking us to set a whole group of women free, to understand them and confront the culture that dehumanizes them. In the process, she forces us to look at the cultural forces that make this historically significant experiment, centered solely on women terrorists, cruel and excessive punishment.

Feminists and left-leaning audiences will find it easier to sympathize with the play's politics. I found myself wondering whether I would have been as easily convinced that this kind of punishment must be opposed if it were McVeigh or another neoconservative asking for my understanding. And if Rodgers is right about the experiment being reinstitutionalized in new prisons, we all have to face similar questions for real.

I feel a little more prepared to face them because of the sophisticated, highly theatrical sensory experience offered by this piece of postmodern agitprop. Settle's directorial experience with the long-lived New York experimental troupe Mabou Mines shows in her skillful use of the environment as a character and the comedy pastiche that relieves the work's clear polemics.

Navigating Rodgers's postmodern collage is both instructive and entertaining. Over the course of the play, the crimes and the criminals lose their context, just as the real prisoners did, in this artificial, ultimately horrific environment. History becomes just another narrative, political crime a construction. My focus shifted from individuals to power networks and the relative values of cultural movements that support or challenge the status quo. Rodgers leaves us to weed through the images and fragments and find, if we can, an explanation for this very modern, psychologically crippling form of punishment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.

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