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Iraq war critique has aged well

Times Staff Writer

Considering that some New York theater critics felt that the satire in Tim Robbins’ “Embedded” had already exceeded its shelf life when the play opened at the Public Theater early last year, it’s surprising how much some of the recorded version, “Embedded/Live,” feels chillingly relevant. Making its Sundance Channel debut on Sunday, the piece is a frenetic, frontal assault on the Bush administration’s planning and execution of the Iraq war, as well as a broadside on the mainstream media’s perceived complicity, and when Robbins’ thinly veiled chorus of Bushites invokes the name of Robert Novak, the laughter is followed by uneasy recognition. We might wish this was old news, but it’s still there staring us in the face every day.

Written by Robbins in 2003 as a response to the hostile opposition that his opposition to the war had inspired, “Embedded” premiered in Los Angeles at the Actors’ Gang, where the Oscar-winning actor is artistic director, before transferring to New York in February 2004. The video, recorded during the last four performances in June of that year, is an odd mix of broad comedy, pointed lampoon and straight-faced drama that works more often than not. Robbins’ vignettes are woven together with story lines featuring three soldiers leaving their families for “Gomorrah,” the play’s nom de guerre for Iraq (Iraqis are Gommorahites and Baghdad is referred to as Babylon) and a quartet of embedded journalists. The masked chorus of Dick, Rum-Rum, Gondola, Woof, Pearly White and Cove punctuate the proceedings with incantations of neocon dogma, convening as the Office of Special Plans. Tellingly, a George W. Bush stand-in is nowhere to be found.

Robbins shepherds his energized Actors’ Gang cast through numerous costume changes as each actor (including the writer-director) takes on multiple roles in the fast-paced, sketch-driven format. V.J. Foster, as Col. Hardchannel, a Broadway-alluding martinet in charge of making the embedded media types war-ready, and Kate Mulligan as a principled journalist and a soldier’s wife, are standouts.

Some of the music choices are a little obvious (Edwin Starr’s “War,” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”) but the blaring rock soundtrack, proudly brandishing two songs by the Clash like manifestos (the play is dedicated to the late Joe Strummer), plus some witty novelties, quickly declares the no-holds-barred mood of what follows.

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It’s inevitable that taped or filmed theater loses something in translation to the screen. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that more plays and theatrical events are not preserved, particularly at a time when digital video makes it more practical than ever.

“Embedded/Live” captures much of the in-your-face spirit of the production and -- love ‘em or hate ‘em -- Robbins’ passionate views. It also serves as an artifact of dissent that deserves to be trotted out the next time the clouds of war inevitably gather on the horizon.

*

‘Embedded/Live’

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Where: Sundance Channel

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: TV-14 (May be unsuitable for children under 14, with advisory for coarse language)

Tim Robbins...Sarge/Cove

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Ben Cain...Monk/Journalist

V.J. Foster...Hardchannel/Announcer

Brent Hinkley...Rum Rum/Chip Web

Kaili Hollister...Jen Jen/Journalist

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Mark Lewis...Lieutenant/Ranter/Journalist

Riki Lindhome...Gondola/Journalist

Jay R. Martinez...Ramon/Camera Kid

Kate Mulligan...Maryanne/Woof/Gwen

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Steven M. Porter...Jen’s Dad/Dick/Buford T.

Toni Torres...June/Kitten Kattan

Lolly Ward...Jen’s Mom/Amy Constant/Woof

Executive producer Bob Boyett. Director and writer Tim Robbins.

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