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Cold War history through dark comedic play

BY ALYSSA MARIE HARN | FEBRUARY 10, 2011 7:10 AM

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Hallucinations, mimicry, and uncontrolled body movement are all effects of taking lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD. Kyle Niemer and his fellow cast members spent a full day of rehearsal perfecting how to portray these issues for the historical comedy Operation Midnight Climax.

“There is a lot of hair touching in the play,” said Niemer, a University of Iowa senior and theater major.

Operation Midnight Climax will première at 8 p.m. today in the Theatre Building’s Theatre B as part of the Gallery Series. Performances will continue at 8 p.m. through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Feb. 13. Admission is $5 free for UI students with valid IDs.

The play focuses on Operation Midnight Climax, one of a multitude of secret experiments done by the CIA during the Cold War to investigate brainwashing, mind control, and interrogation techniques. Operation Midnight Climax began in 1953, when the CIA hired prostitutes to seduce U.S. citizens into safe houses where they were unknowingly drugged with LSD, then interrogated and observed by the agents. The play showcases one night in a safe house.

Many of the cast members found it hard to believe that about 99 percent of the script is factual.
“The one thing that pulled me into the project was the script — it is so mind-boggling and just so unreal at times that the cast left the first reading thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is crazy,’ ” Niemer said.

Playwright and UI senior Matthew Benyo uses dark comedy in the script to present the truth about the government’s Cold War experiments in a zany yet realistic way.

The director of the play, UI senior Soren Olsen, said the show’s humor is essential because it allows the audience to learn the truth about the government in a light manner.

“The show points out a lot of the flaws of our country but allows us to laugh at them and to better accept them,” Olsen said. “We have to open these doors and show [the audience] this truth that lives among us and at the same time not scare them.”

Wall frames construct the set, which allows an open view for the audience to reflect the script’s exposure of the government’s secret.

“It’s kind of like a cross-section — you get to see behind the walls of the government that are normally guarded,” Benyo said.

Operation Midnight Climax is the most research-intensive play Benyo has written. The playwright and Cold War fanatic read 30 books on the subject before writing the script, and he incorporated many of the people from that era into the play. Some such people include beatniks Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady. Benyo even blended lines from Ginsberg and Kerouac’s poems, as well as quotes said by them, into the script.

Niemer said acting in the play made him more knowledgeable and curious about the Cold War era, and he hopes the play will inspire audiences to discover more as well.

“I hope people leave with a different view of reality and life and want to ask questions and learn more about what they have seen,” he said.


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