The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Politicizing the Justice Department, Bush takes a page from his father

Filed under: BCCI,Crime & Corruption,offshore,Scoops,World — Lucy Komisar @ 11:51 pm

By Lucy Komisar
May 27, 2007

President Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, has come under fire for politicizing the U.S. Justice Department for his dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys, apparently because they didn’t target Democrats. But using the Justice Department for political ends isn’t simply an invention of Gonzales or of the President; it’s an old Bush family tradition.

In politicizing the Justice Department, U.S. President Bush takes a page from his father. The George H.W. Bush Justice Department 25 years ago balked at investigating and prosecuting the key players in the BCCI scandal and moved only, and in limited fashion, after New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau forced its hand.

BCCI, Bank of Credit and Commerce Internationala criminal offshore bank, was a cozy partner of arms merchants, drug traffickers, financial manipulators, third-world dictators and terrorists, including Abu Nidal. It also committed fraud against its depositors, covering up investment losses, phony insider loans and embezzlement that, at as much as $15 billion, added up to the biggest bank fraud in history.

The Bank of Credit and Commerce International was founded in 1972 by a Pakistani banker, Agha Hasan Abedi, with the support of Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the ruler of the oil-rich state of Abu Dhabi and head of the United Arab Emirates. It collected deposits largely from South Asian small businesspeople and immigrants. It bribed third-world officials to get their central bank deposits. And it laundered money for criminals of all stripes.

Norman Bailey, a U.S. National Security Council staffer who monitored world terrorism by tracking movements of U.S. money, began seeing BCCI’s name in 1981. He said that the NSC learned that BCCI was involved with “terrorists, technology transfers including the unapproved transfer of U.S. technology to the Soviet bloc, weapons dealing, the manipulation of financial markets” as well as gun running and guerrilla movements, and embargo-and-boycott violations. BCCI routinely provided illicit arms traffickers with counterfeit documents and letters of credit.

(Bailey recently left his last intelligence job, at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence –ODNI.)

Bailey also became aware of a Central Intelligence Agencyrelationship between BCCI and the CIA. CIA Director William Casey met with Abedi several times at the well-known Madison Hotel in Washington, across the street from the Washington Post.

The CIA used Islamabad and other Pakistani branches to funnel some of the $2 billion Washington sent to client Osama bin Laden Osama bin Ladento finance the Afghani Mujaheddin fighting the Soviets. It spread cash to assure the passage of their weapons through the Karachi port and customs. It even organized mule convoys to transport the arms into Afghanistan. It moved the cash the Pakistani military and government officials skimmed from U.S. aid.

In the midst of its 20-year run, the bank that CIA Director Robert Gates called the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals International” moved into the U.S. It couldn’t do so openly, blocked because its division into two offshore centers (Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands) meant that no bank regulator could see what was going on worldwide. So it decided to buy banks secretly, with the help of Saudi money-men and intelligence officials and with front-men, headed by Clark Clifford, who had been Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary.

Jack Blum, Jack Blumspecial counsel to Senator John Kerry’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, was (after the rumors of Iran-Contra drug trafficking) investigating the relationship of narcotics law enforcement to American foreign policy. He found witnesses who told him about BCCI’s connection to drug money laundering for the Medellín drug cartel and Panama strongman Manuel Noriega.

He also discovered coming arrests for BCCI money-laundering in a Tampa, Florida, drug-trafficking investigation, “Operation C-Chase.” But the Justice Department was uninterested in Blum’s evidence that took the case further, including tapes and meetings with bank insiders talking about the bank’s widespread criminality and its illegal control of First American Bank in Washington D.C.

The bank was a dicey target for Bush for several reasons. One, because of the involvement of Saudi shareholders – some were intelligence officials and another invested in his son George W. Bush’s business interests. And two, because the Reagan-Bush CIA had used it for “black ops,” illegal operations, not only to channel funds to al-Qaeda, but also for Iran-Contra payments and cash to Manuel Noriega.

The U.S. Justice Department sat on the evidence of BCCI’s illegal activities and blocked investigations by others.

Federal attorneys later said that Justice Department officials told them that BCCI was “a political case,” and that Washington decided how to investigate and prosecute it. When Kerry’s investigators tried to find out what the CIA knew, the agency repeatedly lied or withheld information. But Blum discovered the agency’s ties to the bank. He found that during the 1980s, the CIA had prepared hundreds of reports that discussed BCCI’s criminal connections—drug trafficking, money laundering—and its illegal control of First American Bank.

Those in the know, former CIA directors Richard Helms and William Casey, later lied and said that they hadn’t a clue. The CIA blocked investigation of leads in the case. Documents were destroyed, an agent later reported. The CIA provided its reports to Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, who didn’t act on them; the CIA did not provide information to the prosecutors in Tampa.

In October 1988, a month before the U.S. presidential election, Justice won a Tampa indictment of the bank and eight of its employees for laundering millions of dollars for the Medellín cartel. The indictment said nothing about Noriega, still on the CIA payroll, a relationship that Republican candidate Bush had initiated when he headed the agency.

Justice went for the narrowest case possible. It plea bargained with the bank and obtained a fine of $14 million—about what the undercover agents disguised as drug traffickers had deposited! It declined to use the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law—invented to aid prosecution of drug traffickers—to attempt to confiscate the bank’s assets.

The U.S. attorney agreed not to charge the bank or any affiliates with other federal criminal crimes “under investigation or known to the government at the time of the execution of this agreement.” Justice even wrote letters to state regulators asking them to keep BCCI open! The deal kept the bank alive and discouraged the jailed officials from telling more.

With Kerry’s support, in 1989 Blum went to New York to see a local county prosecutor, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Blum told him about the Justice Department’s refusal to look into BCCI’s involvement in drug money laundering and other crimes. Morgenthau opened an investigation and ran into a wall of obstacles from Justice, which refused to cooperate, grant him access to witnesses or share information.

Then Morgenthau received an insider tip. The chairman of BCCI’s internal review committee in London, Masihur (Arthur) Rahman, told his bosses that the bank’s true finances had been distorted by deception and manipulation, and he resigned. He got phone calls threatening him and his family with death. Rahman contacted Morgenthau’s office and revealed that Price Waterhouse audits had reported that, through a series of phony loans, BCCI had secret ownership of First American Bankshares, by then an $11-billion U.S. interstate bank holding company.

John KerryIn May 1991, Kerry finally got a one-day hearing before a U.S. Senate banking subcommittee. Justice ordered key witnesses not to cooperate and refused to supply subpoenaed documents.

As time progressed, Morgenthau took tough actions, and Justice made the most limited case possible. In July 1991, based on information supplied by Morgenthau, a New York County grand jury handed down an indictment that named BCCI, its Cayman Islands subsidiary, and six individuals, including the BCCI president, Clifford and Altman. It charged that the bank was a criminal enterprise whose corporate strategy had been to seek out flight capital, black market capital, and the proceeds of drug sales.

Finally, in August, a federal grand jury in Tampa indicted six BCCI officials as well as a reputed Colombian drug baron, but not the bank president or the bank. It focused only on drug-money laundering and the connection to Noriega (no longer a Bush friend). It ignored leads, witnesses and evidence that would have revealed the bank’s large scale frauds and exposed the CIA and Reagan-Bush illegal use of the bank.

In October, Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller III Khalid bin Mahfouz(now FBI chief), oversaw a federal grand jury indictment of Clifford and an associate. But he didn’t go after Khalid bin Mahfouz, the BCCI shareholder who had invested in George W. Bush’s oil enterprises, or other well-connected Gulf Arabs. In November, Justice announced another indictment focusing on BCCI’s secret ownership in shares of two banks in California and Miami.

Finally, in December 1991, Justice issued a major indictment against the bank, which pleaded guilty to federal and state charges of racketeering involving money-laundering and the illegal takeover of First American and other U.S. banks. But only one of the accused was arrested, in France; by then the others were safely in the Middle East or Pakistan.

Morgenthau’s investigation continued. In July 1992 a New York grand jury indicted Bin Mahfouz and an aide for defrauding BCCI and its depositors of as much as $300 million, using depositors’ money to buy his bank shares. But Bin Mahfouz was safe in Saudi Arabia and settled for paying $225 million.

The Justice Department didn’t go after Bush family friend and money source Bin Mahfouz at all.

In 1992, Bin Mahfouz established the Muwafaq (“blessed relief”) Foundation in the offshore Channel Islands. The Treasury Deprtment alled it “an al-Qaeda front.”

The missing BCCI money was never found. The Reagan-Bush political agenda kept the Justice Department from cracking down on BCCI early on and preventing the damage that missing cash may have done.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

“A Moon for the Misbegotten” evokes 1920s rural poverty

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:25 pm
O’Neill depicts smart woman trapped by gender and class
By Lucy Komisar

Eugene O’Neill’s play of the 1920s is a sharp political commentary about class, poverty and gender. That overlays what director Howard Davies projects as a story of personal relationships, a male-female pas de deux, with an interfering father thrown in. The individual performances are powerful, even though they don’t always connect.

It is 1923. The 30-ish Josie Hogan (an assertive, moving, dignified Eve Best) is helping her self-involved father Paul (played by Colm Meaney with a sense of true male entitlement) scrape survival out of a hard scrabble Connecticut farm. Her brother has just taken off for better parts.

Josie and Paul see their “way out” as Jim Tyrone (Kevin Spacey), a rich, alcoholic, third-rate actor whose inheritance makes him the Hogans’ landlord. But the cards are really held by T. Stedman Harder (Billy Carter), the owner of a neighboring estate, who is defined by his pretentious first initial and his position as an executive with Standard Oil.

Davies doesn’t concentrate on the politics. In fact, his take is rather cartoonish. That begins with the Hogans’ home, designer Bob Crowley’s dilapidated unpainted wood shack, which seems more out of Appalachia than Connecticut. Billy Carter’s Steadman in jodhpurs, riding boots, and bowler hat belongs to a sitcom, not a man who represents evil corporate power.

The Hogans’ Irish accents — as opposed to Tyrone’s good English — set them apart by class. But the political story is lost in Davies’ directions, so take the personal story instead.

Phil Hogan, squinty-eyed and blustery, is a self-centered man who cares more about his comfort and his booze than about either of his children. When he proclaims, “This is a great day for the poor and oppressed. I’ll do no more work,” it is the exultation of a lazy drunk.

Josie is the dutiful daughter whose personal life is barren, though she half-brags audaciously about how she carries on with men: “I’ve a right to be free.” Somehow you never real believe she is as promiscuous as she claims.

Jim Tyrone is the weak alcoholic rich guy, rich through no fault of his own, who perhaps for want of something better to do visits Josie. If there is supposed to be romantic interest on his side, it is not detected in Spacey’s performance. He seems to be lost in an alcoholic haze even before he gets drunk. Maybe he just wants a friend or a shoulder.

Can Josie catch him? According to her father’s plan? For herself? Josie is a smart woman trapped between two largely useless men.

Best, Spacey and Meaney are consummate actors. The only problem arises when you try to put their performances together. The story line sets us up for tragedy. Josie is tough but self-abnegating, naïve, sad and vulnerable. Tyrone knows enough to feel guilty but is in many ways a twit. (Is that the inevitable female tragedy?) Spacey plays him with studied irony. The fact of Josie plying Tyrone with booze when her goal is to get him to seduce her is bizarre. Isn’t it supposed to happen the other way around?

Nevertheless, these actors are so good that it’s a delight to watch them deliver their lines. Even if none of it feels real. So, it’s a period piece. It’s a period gem.

“A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Written by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Howard Davies. Starring Eve Best, Kevin Spacey, Colm Meaney, Billy Carter, Eugene O’Hare. Set by Bob Crowley.

Old Vic Theatre Company at Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Tue – Sat 7pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. Through June 10, 2007. Running time: 3 hrs. $82.50 – $102.50; Students: $26.50. 212-307-4100.

Photos 1, 3, 4 by Simon Annand; photo 2 by Lorenzo Agius.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

“Inherit the Wind”: Making a Monkey of U.S. Fundamentalists

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:00 am

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS) – May 25, 2007


Credit:Joan Marcus

Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy in “Inherit the Wind”.

The international focus on fundamentalist Islam might obscure the fact that western nations have their own experiences with fundamentalist religion — among them the country whose government has most targeted radical Islam, the United States.

It’s common knowledge here that much of the support for President George W. Bush comes from fundamentalist Protestants whose faith in the literal word of the Bible matches fundamentalist Muslims’ belief in the literal word of Mohammed.

The problem for U.S. citizens who believe in freedom of thought and the separation of church and state occurs when religious activists attempt to force their beliefs on everyone else. This has been an historical problem in the U.S. education system, even as recently as 1999 when the Kansas Board of Education voted to delete the teaching of evolution from the state’s science curriculum.

The controversy was resolved when state voters in 2006 ousted the fundamentalist majority.

However, a sense of continuing conflict — not to mention the hardly-veiled contempt many educated people here have for the fundamentalists — is palpable among the New York audiences filling the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway to see a riveting star-studded production of “Inherit the Wind”.

The production is a revival of the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee that tells the story of what came to be known as “The Scopes Monkey Trial”.

In 1925, John Scopes, a small-town Tennessee science teacher and football coach, was tried and convicted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. He had violated a state law that forbade teaching any theory conflicting with the biblical assertion of divine creation. Ironically, the title of the play comes from the Bible, from Solomon: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

The play is not only about the enforcement of religious orthodoxy; it’s about attempts to stifle free thought. The authors wrote it in 1950 as a riposte to the threat to intellectual freedom mounted by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used the banner of anti-communism to squelch progressive voices.

In the play, science teacher Bert Cates (Benjamin Walker) is jailed for the crime of explaining evolution to his students. Help comes quickly from a Baltimore newspaper which hires “Henry Drummond” (portrayed by Christopher Plummer as a wry, sophisticated lawyer) to defend the young man. To chronicle the story, it dispatches its prize reporter, smartly played by Denis O’Hare as a sarcastic, fast-talking cynic.

In fact, Scopes didn’t just happen to get indicted for the crime, he was sought out to test the law by the American Civil Liberties Union. He was defended by Clarence Darrow, to this day the most famous lawyer in U.S. history. The journalist is based on the acerbic critic and columnist, H. L. Mencken.


The lawyer for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, here Matthew Harrison Brady (an almost curmudgeonly “good ole boy” as played by Brian Dennehy). Bryan was a three-time Democratic candidate for president who really did care about working people. But his fundamentalism turned him small-minded and smug.

The highlight of the drama, and the case, is when Drummond/Darrow, who has been refused by a biased judge the right to place eminent zoology, geology, or other professors and scientists on the stand, calls Brady/Bryan, who agrees to be questioned. Drummond makes a fool of him, getting him to insist that a great fish really swallowed Jonah, getting him stuck in historical time-frames defined by the generations of biblical “begats,” and finally leading him into declaring that God talks to him. There was lots of audience laughter at that.

At one point, from the stage, comes the comment: “Why did God plague us with the power to think?” As Drummond makes clear, it is the right to think that is on trial.


Dennehy makes Brady, who had to be cleverer than this fellow
appears, into a demagogic, crowd-pleasing opportunist. (Well, there have been plenty of such phony evangelists around).

The staging by Doug Hughes uses music and pageantry to add to the flavour. Even while patrons are taking their seats — some on stage on “courtroom” benches — performers, accompanied by mandolin and guitar, sing, “You can’t make a monkey of me,” a popular song of the time.

The production is spellbinding, no less for the fact that religious fundamentalists peddling creationism are still around, and politicians are still playing up to them.

On May 3, 10 frontrunners for the Republican nomination for U.S.
president participated in a nationally televised debate. In a show of hands, three out of the 10 (Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo) said they did not believe in the evolutionary account of human origins.

“Inherit the Wind.” Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Directed by Doug Hughes. Starring Brian Dennehy, Christopher Plummer, Byron Jennings, Denis O’Hare, Terry Beaver, Steve Brady, Anne Bowles, Bill Buell, Bill Christ, Carson Church, Conor Donovan, Lanny Flaherty, Kit Flanagan, Beth Fowler, Sherman Howard, Katie Klaus, Maggie Lacey, Jordan Lage, Mary Kate Law, Philip LeStrange, Kevin Loomis, David M. Lutken, Charlotte Maier, Matthew Nardozzi, Randall Newsome, Jay Patterson, Pippa Pearthree, Scott Sowers, Amanda Sprecher, Erik Steele, Jeff Steitzer, Henry Stram, Benjamin Walker, Andrew Weems. Sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto.

Lyceum Theatre, 149 W 45 St. Mon-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm. Running time: 2 hours. Through July 11, 2007. $76.25 – $96.25, $36.25 seating on stage. 212-239-6200. http://www.inheritthewindonbroadway.com/. For more about the real story: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/biotp.htm

Photos by Joan Marcus.

Story on IPS site

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bono the tax dodger wants others’ taxes spent on Africa

Filed under: Blog,tax evasion — Tags: — Lucy Komisar @ 9:09 am

By Lucy Komisar
May 16, 2007

Paul Hewson, known as Bono, the rock star, is complaining that the seven wealthy nations in the G-7 that had promised to double aid to the developing world by 2010, are more than half behind target. The countries are the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Bono’s protest at a Berlin news conference Monday Bonomight be taken more seriously if he and his U2 band were not contributing to the system that deprives developing countries of far more than western aid – much of which has to be repaid.

Bono is a tax dodger. The Irish Bono ran his music publishing company in Ireland, where he and his partners took advantage of a law that exempted musicians and artists from taxes on royalties. To dodge taxes on non-royalty income, Bono’s interests had the help of offshore nominee directors.

Bono George W. Bush and Bonogets no argument from George W. Bush, who has blocked mild European attempts to get tax havens to stop helping the wealthy hide incomes from taxes.

The Irish royalty exemption was begun to aid and reward creative artists, in hopes of encouraging the struggling kind, not to further enrich mega-millionaires like Bono. Last year, the law was changed. From 2007, artists who earn more than $625,450 must pay tax on half their creative income. It hardly seems a harsh measure.

Bono’s Dublin company earned $110 million in 2005. Taking profits through the company rather than individually, Bono would have had to pay only 12.5 percent corporate tax, a rate still below that of the local bus conductor or plumber or school teacher.

But that apparently was too much for the man who has homes on the Irish Coast and in the South of France and New York City. So, last year, Bono “moved” the registration of his business to the Netherlands, where it will pay about 5 percent tax on royalties.

Maybe Ireland and the countries of the G-7 could provide more development aid if Bono and people like him didn’t dodge their fair taxes.

What might the people in the countries he wants to help think about this? The same “move your registration to the lowest tax rate” system that Bono uses is employed by multinational corporations to dodge taxes worldwide.

Developing countries lose an estimated $500 billion every year as a result.

As Africa is the continent Bono expresses most concern about, he ought to listen to what the African Union says: Tax dodging by foreign companies costs it $150 billion a year – three times what it receives in aid.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Revivals Take on Wars Past and Present

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 10:36 am

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS) – May 10, 2007


Credit: John Ranard

A scene from “The Brig.”

Conflict historically has aroused playwrights’ passions — think Aristophanes’ famous “War and Peace” trilogy written more than 2,000 years ago.

In that tradition, New York stage voices are being raised against war in two revivals that clearly retain their relevance today.

“Journey’s End”, a gripping play about World War I written in the 1920s, is spare and direct, unsettling the audience with the prosaic waiting game of war. And “The Brig” details the numbing banality of military cruelty as the Living Theatre revives its famous gritty production of the 1960s.

Presented in a small theatre on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Kenneth Brown’s “The Brig” is based on the author’s own experience as a prisoner for 30 days in a Marine Corps jail at Camp Fuji, Japan in 1957, during the Korean War. It was first staged by the Living Theatre in 1963, and its stark social realism reflects the essence of the company’s political mission.

A cell with five double-decker bunks is enclosed by a chain-link fence, and the area outside, concrete floor or gravel exercise yard, is separated from the audience by barbed wire. Ten men, who have committed unknown, apparently minor infractions, are confined for up to 30 days to suffer dehumanising treatment at the hands of guards who punctuate their disapproval with punches to the stomach.

The first irony of Judith Malina’s direction occurs when a black officer calls a white inmate “boy”. It summons up the tradition of white men treating black men like dirt. In fact, the officers call the men maggots — insects. Or they call them by numbers, never by names.

The guards turn basic minutiae of life — dressing, showering, shaving, smoking — into opportunities for control and humiliation. The inmates must pull on boots, then take them off and step on them (they are not allowed to touch feet to floor) to put on their pants. Eyes must gaze straight ahead.

When the men move, it is in double time, knees high, arms raised with fists near chins. When they leave the cell, in double time, they must shout requests for permission to cross white lines painted on the floors between spaces and enclosures.

Inside the cell, they stand and silently read the Marine manual. Outside, they do chores, swabbing, scrubbing or mopping the concrete floor.

There is a Nazi sort of order, efficiency and gratuitous cruelty. It is surprising when one prisoner bursts into the “Marine Hymn”: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our country’s battles on land and on the sea…” Is that meant as satire?

The spectacle is a macabre dance. One can see how the cacophony of voices, the repetition, and the tension seared and stunned audiences more than 40 years ago.

The only one who reacts normally is an inmate (Albert Lamont) who goes crazy and is put in “the hole”, where he screams, “My name is not ‘6’; my name is James Turner!”

Curiously, Brown told IPS at the opening night reception that the men locked in the brig didn’t feel they were being subjected to cruelty. They believed they were being duly punished for infractions. The military had the acceptance of cruelty built into them.

For Malina, the play is a commentary on U.S. atrocities in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

“In ‘The Brig’ we see the discipline and the training to obedience that suppresses free will and makes it possible for good-hearted young women and men to commit the atrocities that armies everywhere commit,” she said. “Through the bio-mechanisms of the drill and the enforcement of the absurd precision rituals, a mind-body adjustment is made, designed to overcome their natural humanitarian qualms.”

“Journey’s End”, now running on Broadway, is not a Hollywood-style swaggering patriotic war story about intrepid fighter pilots or its 1970s version of pot-smoking infantrymen. It’s the ordinariness that at the end is so unsettling. There’s no glamour or anti-glamour here.

The play, by British author R.C. Sherriff, is based on a true experience of World War I friendship, bonding and survival. The author didn’t mean this as an anti-war play, just as a record of what his countrymen went through in the “Great War” trenches.

Director David Grindley stages this as the story of ordinary people caught up in the military aspect of a political game whose purpose is far beyond them. You don’t ever learn what set off the Germans against the British, or vice versa. These English soldiers just focus on staying warm and alive and carrying out orders. It is a powerful and often poetic production.

The set is a trench in St. Quentin, France, about 165 miles southwest of Paris, near Tours in the Loire Valley. In the trench is a wood hut lit dimly by a few candles. Thin beams hold up a ceiling, a crossbeam log traverses the roof. There is a small table and a couple of wood platforms for sleeping. The site is 50 yards from the front lines. The day for which the troops are preparing will see a German assault.

Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), the cynical company commander, is from the English “heartland”: his father is vicar of a country village. He’s been in the war for three years and his nerves are wrecked. He is wound-up, overwrought, and drinks to dull the pain.

Lt. Osborne (Boyd Gaines), his second in command, is a generation older. A former schoolmaster, he is solid. He loves Stanhope like a son. Gaines gracefully exhibits Osborne’s steady intelligence and charm.

Private Mason (Jefferson May), the cook, is working class and serves the upper class officers the way he would in civilian life.

Just out of school, 2nd Lt. Raleigh (Stark Sands), is fresh-faced and imbued with the romance of it all. He’s from Stanhope’s village and courts his sister. His vision of war clashes sharply with Stanhope’s, and we’ll too soon learn who is right.

The horror is matter-of-fact: a gas mask packed around soldiers’ necks, the hysterical fear of 2nd Lt. Hibert (Justin Blanchard). The men wonder who will survive the expected German attack. Stanhope tells Hibert that “sticking it is the only thing a decent man can do.” That was, of course, the ideology that kept the men in the trenches.

There are suggestions that the problem rests with each country’s leaders. The troops are more humane: the Germans allow English soldiers to carry back wounded from the field, even sending up flares so they can see their way. The German prisoner (Kieran Campion) is terrified but treated decently. They are all, it would seem, cogs in a wheel spun by unseen hands. Hindsight makes the events all the more chilling.

The play is a period piece and seems rather hokey in the naïveté and simplicity of everyone involved. But perhaps that’s what they were like in the days before troops realised that leaders were using them for cannon fodder.

At curtain call, the actors, unsmiling, stand before a wall covered with the names of the dead.

Article on IPS site

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

“The Brig” details numbing banality of military cruelty

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:25 am
Living Theatre revives famous gritty production of the 1960s
By Lucy Komisar

Kenneth Brown’s play “The Brig” is a numbing expression of the banality of institutionalized cruelty exercised by the U.S. military. It’s based on the author’s own experience as a prisoner for 30 days in a Marine Corps brig at Camp Fuji, Japan, in 1957, during the Korean War. The play was first staged by the Living Theatre in 1963, and its gritty social realism reflects the essence of the company’s political mission.

A cell with five double-decker bunks is enclosed by a chain-link fence, and the area outside, concrete floor or gravel exercise yard, is separated from the audience by barbed wire. Ten men, who have committed unknown, apparently minor infractions, are confined for up to 30 days to suffer dehumanizing treatment at the hands of guards who punctuate their disapproval with punches to the stomach.

The first irony of Judith Malina’s direction occurs when a black officer calls a white inmate “boy.” It summons up the tradition of white men treating black men like dirt. In fact, the officers call the men maggots. Or they call them by numbers, never by names.

The guards turn basic minutiae of life – dressing, showering, shaving, smoking – into opportunities for control and humiliation. The inmates must pull on boots, then take them off and step on them (they are not allowed to touch feet to floor) to put on their pants. Eyes must gaze straight ahead.

When the men move, it is in double time, knees high, arms raised with fists near chins. When they leave the cell, in double time, they must shout requests for permission to cross white lines painted on the floors between spaces and enclosures.

Inside the cell, they stand and silently read the Marine manual. Outside, they do chores, swabbing, scrubbing or mopping the concrete floor.

There is a Nazi sort of order, efficiency and gratuitous cruelty. It is surprising when one bursts into the “Marine Hymn.” Is that meant as satire?

The spectacle is a macabre dance. One can see how the cacophony of voices, the repetition, and the tension seared and stunned audiences more than 40 years ago.

The only one who reacts normally is a man who freaks out and is put in “the hole,” where he screams, “My name is not 6; my name is James Turner!”

Curiously, Brown said at the post-play opening night reception that the men locked in the brig didn’t feel they were being subjected to cruelty. They believed they were being duly punished for infractions. Perhaps the military had the acceptance of cruelty built into them.

In a director’s note, Malina says, “In The Brig we see the discipline and the training to obedience that suppresses free will and makes it possible for good-hearted young women and men to commit the atrocities that armies everywhere commit. Through the bio-mechanisms of the drill and the enforcement of the absurd precision rituals, a mind-body adjustment is made, designed to overcome their natural humanitarian qualms.”

Malina and her late husband Julian Beck founded the Living Theatre in 1947. “The Brig” is the first production in the company’s new home on Clinton Street, in the arts and café district of the Lower East Side.

“The Brig.” Written by Kenneth H. Brown. Directed by Judith Malina. Starring Johnson Anthony, Gene Ardor, Kesh Baggan, Steven Scot Bono, Brent Bradley, Brad Burgess, John Kohan, Albert Lamont, Jeff Nash, Bradford Rosenbloom, Jade Rothman, Isaac Scranton, Joshua Striker-Roberts, Morteza Tavakoli, Evan True, Antwan Ward, Louis Williams. Designed by Julian Beck & Gary Brackett.

The Living Theatre, 21 Clinton Street. (F train to Delancy St.) Thu-Sat 8pm; Sun 3pm. Running time: 2:15. Through July 8, 2007. $30. Pay what you can on Thursdays. http://www.livingtheatre.org/

Photo 1 original cast; photos 2 and 3 by John Ranard

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

“Journey’s End” is gripping WWI play of the 20s

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:41 am
Spare and direct, it unsettles with prosaic waiting game of war
By Lucy Komisar

It’s the ordinariness that at the end is so unsettling. “Journey’s End” is not a Hollywood-style swagger tale about intrepid fighter pilots or its 70’s version of pot-smoking infantrymen. No glamour or anti-glamour here.

Director David Grindley stages this as the story of prosaic people caught up in the military aspect of a political game whose purpose is far beyond them. You don’t ever learn what set off the Germans against the British, or vice versa. These English soldiers – superbly portrayed by a uniformly excellent cast — just focus on staying warm and alive and carrying out orders. It is a powerful and often poetic production.

The play, by British author R.C. Sherriff, was first produced in the 1920s. It is based on a true experience of World War I friendship, bonding and survival. The author didn’t mean this as an anti-war play, just as a record of what his countrymen went through in the “Great War” trenches. But we know enough about how unnecessary that war was, just more failed diplomacy by another name, to find sorrow and horror in the egregious suffering and loss of life.

The set is a trench in St. Quentin, France, about 165 miles southwest of Paris, very near Tours in the Loire Valley. In the trench is a wood hut lit dimly by a few candles. Thin beams hold up ceiling, a crossbeam log traverses the roof. There is a small table and a couple of wood platforms for sleeping. The site is 50 yards from the front lines. The day for which the troops are preparing will see a German assault.

Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), the cynical companyBoyd Gaines and Hugh Dancy, photo Paul Kolnik commander, is from what Americans would call the heartland: his father is vicar of a country village. He’s been in the war for three years and his nerves are wrecked. He is wound-up, overwrought, and drinks to dull the pain. Dancy gives a powerful performance.

Lt. Osborne (Boyd Gaines), his second in command, is a generation older. A former schoolmaster, he is solid. He loves Stanhope like a son. Gaines’ portrayal gracefully exhibits Osborne’s steady intelligence and charm.

Private Mason (Jefferson May), the cook, is working class and serves the upper class officers the way he would in civilian life.

Just out of school, 2nd Lt. Raleigh (Stark Sands), is fresh-faced and imbued with the romance of it all. He’s from Stanhope’s village and courts his sister. His vision of war clashes sharply with Stanhope’s, and we’ll too soon learn who is right.

The horror is matter of fact: a gas mask packed around soldiers’ necks, the hysterical fear of 2nd Lt. Hibert (Justin Blanchard). The men wonder who will survive the expected German attack. Stanhope tells Hibert that “sticking it is the only thing a decent man can do.” That was, of course, the ideology that kept the men in the trenches.

There are suggestions that the problem rests with each country’s leaders: the Germans allow English soldiers to carry back wounded from the field, even sending up lights so they can see their way. The German prisoner (Kieran Campion) is terrified but treated decently. They are all, it would seem, cogs in a wheel spun by unseen (safe) hands. Hindsight makes the events all the more chilling.

The play is a period piece and seems rather hokey in the naïveté and simplicity of everyone involved. But perhaps that’s what they were like in the days before troops realized that incompetent leaders were using them for cannon fodder. At curtain call, the actors, unsmiling, stand before a wall covered with the names of the dead.

“Journey’s End.” Written by R.C. Sherriff. Directed by David Grindley. Set by Jonathan Fensom. Starring Hugh Dancy, Boyd Gaines, Jefferson Mays, Stark Sands, John Ahlin, Nick Berg Barnes, John Behlmann, Justin Blanchard, Kieran Campion, John Curless, Richard Poe.

Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44 St. Tue – Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. Running time: 2:30. Through June 10, 2007. $36.25 – $96.25. 212-239-6200. http://www.journeysendonbroadway.com/

Photos by Paul Kolnik.

 

 

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