REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★

The Australian premiere of Who’s Your Baghdaddy or How I started the Iraq War is the latest endeavour by local theatre makers to keep audiences entertained while our venues remain dark.

Presented by Curveball Creative, this project is an ambitious undertaking, with the ultimate goal of facilitating the next best thing to actually sitting in a theatre. The producers have taken over a Sydney house, transforming each of its rooms into individual spaces for each of the eight performers (award-winner Isobel Hudson has overseen design) so that they can remain socially distanced while ostensibly performing alongside one another.

And while the technical logistics of this project are considerable (but skilfully managed here by Michael Goodyear), the material itself is far from slight. The show invites audiences to attend a support group meeting, reminiscent of a 12-step program, for a group whose actions – and lack thereof – contributed to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Aptly, the meeting occurs via Zoom (as does so much in our lives in the current climate) and we’re introduced to the members, who are at various stages of the process of coming to terms with their complicity in the decision to enter Iraq in search of weapons of massive destruction.

Blake Erickson, Doug Hansell and Katrina Retallick in Who’s Your Baghdaddy or How I started the Iraq War

With music and book by Marshall Paillet, lyrics and book by A.D. Penedo and based on an unproduced screenplay by J.T. Allen, Who’s Your Baghdaddy is the story of an Iraqi defector, codenamed “Curveball” (Troy Sussman), who offers intelligence agencies dubious information regarding alleged Iraqi mobile weapons laboratories. It spotlights the way in which the information makes its way from an interrogation room, where it is shared with Junior Detective Richart (Matthew Predny), to CIA analysts Berry (Laura Murphy) and Jerry (Adam Rennie), and then to CIA operative Tyler (Phillip Lowe) and, ultimately, to the highest levels of George W. Bush’s Administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell uses the deeply flawed intelligence to rationalise the Iraq invasion in a speech to the UN Security Council.

This is a satirical piece that entertains but also reminds us how humans are at the core of investigative chains, and as such, are able to be compromised, misunderstood, motivated and moved by human foibles, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. And when and who takes responsibility for these decisions?

Clocking in at roughly 2 hours and unlike the events it satirises, the Australian premiere of Who’s Your Baghdaddy is a success, speaking to the remarkable creative talent in Sydney theatre and what can be accomplished when, in times of crisis, the community is forced to test the limits of its lateral thinking capabilities.

Adam Rennie and Phillip Lowe in Who’s Your Baghdaddy or How I started the Iraq War

Directed by Neil Gooding, the streamed production doesn’t lose our attention for a second, switching focus to each room in the house at precisely the right moment, and conveying a sense of a completely cohesive cast in spite of their physical distance from one another. At times, it is difficult to believe that this is entirely live, given that no performer misses a beat and that camera changes are so slick that it looks like a carefully edited video package. Phoebe Pilcher’s lighting plays a critical role both in setting mood and in helping to create vibrant, individualised spaces for all performers.

Attempting to pull off something of this complexity without first-class performers would be near impossible, and fortunately some of the country’s finest musical theatre talent is on board. Blake Erickson and Katrina Retallick showcase their extensive skills in a number of guises, while Lowe is perfectly cast as the sedulous CIA operative, bringing terrific presence to his portrayal.

Matthew Predny in Who’s Your Baghdaddy or How I started the Iraq War

Predny continues to demonstrate not only his sizeable vocal talent, but also his knack for comedy as Richart, the junior German interrogator. Similarly, Rennie brings his consummate skills to his take on the nerdy analyst and his is a highly entertaining performance. As his partner in crime, Berry, Murphy is excellent, injecting her character with the right mix of intellect and expediency.

Doug Hansell convinces as Martin, a somewhat eccentric former weapons of mass destruction expert who’s desperate for validation of intel he has long trumpeted. And Sussman delivers an impressive performance as the elusive ‘Curveball’, whose ‘eyewitness account’ is the linchpin for the escalating activities that follow. We gain limited insight into the character and as to whether he has credibility. We know as little about his motivations as apparently do his handlers.

Laura Murphy, Doug Hansell and Matthew Predny in Who’s Your Baghdaddy or How I started the Iraq War

Choreography is obviously constrained by what is possible within this unusual setting, but Leah Howard’s movement is neat throughout. Musical Director Steven Kreamer succeeds in creating a fulsome reproduction of the score.

Theatre fans in all corners of the country eagerly await the opportunity to flood foyers for a fix of the live theatre experience. At the time of publication, the date when that will be possible once again is unclear. That said, the ingenuity of the team behind Who’s your Baghdaddy attests to what remains within the realms of possibility even in the midst of a global pandemic, as well as reiterating the tremendous industry that we have, and just how much they’ll have to offer when this is all finally behind us.


WHO’S YOUR BAGHDADDY or HOW I STARTED THE IRAQ WAR

Dates and times: Thursday 25 – Sunday 28 June 2020 @ 7.30pm
Tickets: $22
Bookings: www.baghdaddymusical.com.au

 

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