The head and the heart: John Langs, new artistic director of ACT Theatre, thinks from his gut while predecessor Kurt Beattie was more of a philosopher. Now Langs stages a bold new musical about Abu Ghraib. Yes, you read that right — a musical about torture.
The audience was getting grumpy.
It was showtime for the second preview of “Bad Apples,” a risky, new rock musical at ACT Theatre about the torture-prison scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq — but the doors still hadn’t opened and people milled around ACT’s downstairs lobby, grumbling. There was a rumor that a sound board had blown out.
While theater employees dashed around comforting patrons and talking on walkie-talkies, John Langs, ACT’s new artistic director, stood in the middle of the chaos, grinning.
Directed by John Langs, through Sept. 25 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $25-$40 (292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
Langs, a 45-year-old whose hair is a cocktail of brown, red and gray, is used to chaos. He spent 16 years as a freelance director, bopping from one city to another before landing at ACT. He has a marvelously impish smile, even when his productions’ seams are showing. When the doors finally opened and people streamed through to find their seats, he called out to someone he knew in the crowd: “Hey! Enjoy the ride!”
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A few minutes later, Langs was on stage, thanking his “intrepid audience” for their patience — and for being willing to join him on his ride in his debut season leading the theater.
Langs officially became artistic director in January 2015, but this is his first formal season — and “Bad Apples” is part of an intensively political debut, which includes work Seattle wouldn’t have seen at ACT five years ago.
As he finished his curtain speech, he was standing on a two-tier set, with prison bars, barbed wire and a rock band on the first and three screens up top that project billowing dust clouds and Dan Rather’s stony face announcing the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib.
“Bad Apples” is a thorny production for any director — especially as the signature production for a new artistic director like Langs. The three-hour play involves handgun standoffs, threesomes in a military-issue bed, a live band, lots of technical details and cabaret-style music about waterboarding. (Sample lyrics: “Pour us another round, my friend/Enough to drown a whale and then/You’ll tell us all your tales.”)
Most dangerously, it refuses to demonize anyone involved in that moment of history, from the 9/11 hijackers who kicked off the U.S. wars in Iraq to the U.S. prison guards at Abu Ghraib, who are not played as monsters, but as troubled people in a crisis they didn’t create, but are expected to resolve.
In an interview a few days before previews started, Langs said he had some initial reservations about “Bad Apples.” He heard the pitch from his artistic team and raised his eyebrows. “Then,” he said, playwright Jim Leonard “looked me square in the face and said: ‘It’s a love story.’ ” (The most infamous torturers at Abu Ghraib were involved in a complicated love triangle.)
“Bad Apples,” he realized, distilled a momentous international scandal down to human scale — in this case, three lovers competing for each others’ attention in a war zone — which is Langs’ specialty. His classical work in Seattle, like “Hamlet” and “King Lear,” have been notable for taking revered texts and turning them into visceral dramas about people just trying to get along in the world.
“Abu Ghraib is a moment of American history that people haven’t metabolized yet,” Langs said. “Uncle Sam doesn’t always wear the white hat … and you know you’re making really good art when people have strong feelings about it — this piece is an octopus that touches everybody’s buttons.”
In ACT’s season, “Bad Apples” is sandwiched between “Daisy” (a world premiere about the infamous “daisy ad,” the first significant attack ad in U.S. political history) and “The Royale” (a starkly staged play about Jack Johnson, who became the first African-American heavyweight champion when he knocked the teeth out of a white boxer at the peak of the Jim Crow era).
But Langs, who will soon become the father of a new daughter, says that if this season is about political storms, the next one — yet to be announced — will have more silver linings. “I think about the world she’s entering into,” he said, “and I’m planning the next season with some hope.”
Head vs. gut
Kurt Beattie, Langs’ predecessor, had led ACT since 2003 and helped stabilize the theater after a serious financial crisis. Observers inside and outside the theater — including Beattie, Langs and ACT’s longtime executive director Carlo Scandiuzzi — said the difference between the two is the head and the gut.
“Kurt is such a scholar, such a smart person,” Scandiuzzi said, “which is not to say that John is not — but John operates much more from the heart.” Langs came to ACT as an associate artistic director three years ago and, Scandiuzzi said, has made “an almost seamless transition” into the culture at ACT.
“When somebody comes into ACT, there’s this interesting osmosis. If they don’t get it, they don’t stay. There’s a sense of family, from the janitor to the executive director … It’s like having the right people on the bus. John is in the family. He’s on the bus.”
Langs is also part of a wave of new, younger artistic directors at Seattle’s big arts institutions — Peter Boal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Braden Abraham at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ludovic Morlot at Seattle Symphony Orchestra — who are ushering in a new phase of marrying a love for the classics with an interest in pop culture and experimentation.
If Beattie is a reflective philosopher, Langs is an urgent and protean thinker. He’s directed classical work. (In what might seem a metaphorically significant moment in hindsight, he directed Beattie as King Lear at Seattle Shakespeare Company in 2004.) But he’s also helped shepherd new work into the world, like “Bad Apples” or “Louis Slotin Sonata” (about a fatal accident during the creation of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos) at the Empty Space Theatre in 2006.
He also knows how to throw an elbow at older works, giving them a contemporary edge. His first major production at ACT was Elmer Rice’s 1923 play “The Adding Machine,” about how machines (like calculators) would dehumanize people (like accountants), making their jobs obsolete. (Rice’s predictions came true — you can see it in the automated checkout line at your local grocery store.) Langs staged that dusty old script as a gothic tragicomedy, Samuel Beckett-style, with the characters wearing stark black-and-white makeup and wheeling klieg lights around the stage to illuminate scenes.
Langs, Beattie said, “has an open heart … a new, deeply hopeful love story is as accessible to him as some far-out aesthetic journey.” And, Beattie added, Langs also has a closer connection to pop culture and can oscillate between the classical and the contemporary in a way few other directors can.
That oscillation will be necessary as Langs tries to keep ACT’s hard-won stalwarts who like the theatrical canon and potential newcomers seeking novelty. Then there are the money issues. Decades ago, ACT moved from Lower Queen Anne to a century-old building downtown — a former Eagles fraternal hall — where doing something as minor as replacing a broken window involves the National Register of Historic Place code.
“Nothing here,” Langs said, “is as simple as it seems. To be doing what we do, we should be a $6.5 million theater company, but we’re only at $5.5 million at the moment. But when the chips were really down in 2003 and the call went out, it will never be lost on us that the community showed up … we owe a debt to the city.”
“Bad Apples,” he said, is his way of helping us think through that horrible moment when the photos from Abu Ghraib hit the media.
“I’m a director,” he said. “I make art that is, by definition, ephemeral — but I want to be part of something that’s a little more substantial, that has a trajectory of conversation with Seattle, and maybe beyond.”