by Ryan Oakley
In 1990, when Air America, a comedy about CIA drug smuggling in Laos, was released, people wondered if America was ready to laugh at Vietnam; a war that had ended fifteen years before. Is anyone ready for a comedy about September 11? And is anyone ready to laugh at Guantanamo Bay? After all, the camp is still open. It’s not just soon, it’s now.
If you might be offended by the subject matter, you will be. Don’t attend the play. This review is for those people who, like me, have a dark sense of humour. I’m ready to laugh at Guantanamo Bay and at September 11, I love nothing better than a good Hitler joke and I think that cancer can be funny.
I live in “too soon” with weekend trips to “too much.”
Having said all that, this play just isn’t that funny.
It takes place in a post-prison camp Guantanamo that has been converted into a resort. The play is a floor show put on by former guards and inmates. Mixed into this is some behind the scenes action. The audience plays the part of the tourists and can even buy booze. (But watch your bladder! Things aren’t that informal.) It’s an interesting approach but the execution is sometimes confusing. Guantanamo Hotels & Resorts has more in common with sketch comedy than a traditional play.
It starts off well. In spite of the confusing parts, such as dialogue coming from too many directions, the jokes work. I laughed out loud on a number of occasions. Had I left after the first act, I would have said this play was awesome. Guantanamo Hotels & Resorts builds moments of horrible stress into laughter. It explodes tension like IEDs.
But it all falls down. Like some towers I could mention.
Everything that went right in the first act goes wrong in the second. The play takes itself far too seriously and benches its funniest actors. (The departure of Bill Blitzer, the Cobertesque MC, is not only unbelievable, it also takes away one of the play’s best assets.) Guantanamo Hotels & Resorts becomes heavy-handed, preachy and – even worse– is afraid to take the important risks.
And it does all that after the audience has had a few drinks. What a downer.
Most of the characters have some human foible. Bill Blitzer has a bad temper. Kevin Bradley is vulgar. Vasilli Vladislav, a Russian. But the Muslim characters, Khalid Ibn Sharif, an avowed terrorist, and Mehdia Amin, a woman looking for her disappeared husband, have no bad personal qualities. They only exist to be victimized and to give speeches about it. They’re boring.
I understand that the writers of this play have an agenda. I have no problem with that and, as the agenda seems to be anti-torture, I even support the agenda. But their message is badly served by making the Muslim characters so simperingly sympathetic. These characters also need human failings.
Their lack of bad personal qualities undermines the whole thing. Guantanamo Hotel & Resorts trades in American, Russian and Cuban stereotypes. Then it realizes the human beneath the cartoon. But the Muslims are not granted the same right. The terrorist does not make a single sexist or anti-Semitic comment, let alone have these put into a deeper, more human context. When other characters make fun of them, it’s simply to illustrate American ignorance.
Satire must be ruthless and personal. The audience must never be allowed the easy comfort of a speech-making victim or the cardboard villain of a terrorist who we never see acting badly. Satire is nihilistic. It must accept the vortex of cynicism and mock everyone equally.
In denying the Muslims the bad qualities allowed everyone else, the play simply creates a new and insidious stereotype: Muslim victim.
The play should have dealt with and capitalized on the existing bigotry towards Muslims. Then it could reveal them as humans. It did this for every other character in the play. Guantanamo Hotels & Resorts’ failure to address these stereotypes is either appalling bigotry or cowardice. And I don’t think it’s bigotry. That the play would be so cowardly after taking the initial risk of making a comedy on this subject amazes me. It’s like a suicide bomber on a diet.
Let’s face it: If I’m ready to laugh at Gitmo, I’m ready to laugh at Muslims. I’m ready to laugh at their pain, their ideas and their struggle; ready to laugh at my ideas about all of these. In attending this play, it’s hypocritical to act like I’m doing anything other than laughing at a concentration camp. Making jokes about the guards but none about the inmates is condescending. Every other character becomes more human. The Muslims do not. They become less human.
It’s the only thing I find offensive about Guantanamo Hotels & Resorts.
But I find it deeply offensive.
I wouldn’t mind being offended if I was laughing. The entire second act depends on these one-dimensional characters –-characters that cannot really be made fun of and, therefore, cannot be deepened– and the entire second act is ruined. There’s little humour but a lot of pontificating. The awkward parts remain awkward. Often pointlessly and painfully so. Scenes have potential but it never materializes.
The play starts as a disturbing but funny idea. There’s early victories and lots of laughs. But the second act is an utter failure. In this, it’s a lot like the so-called ‘War on Terror.’
–Bread and Circus in Kensington Market. 299 Augusta Ave.
– Plays: Friday, November 20th, 10:00 PM; Saturday, November 21st, 10:00 PM;
Friday, November 27th, 10:00 PM; Saturday, November 28th, 10:00 PM; Sunday, November 29th, 8:00 PM
-Prices: $15.00 regular admission at the door, $12 student/seniors, $10 in advance.
-Tickets can be bought at the door, by phone at 416-336-3399 or online at Bread and Circus.