Sunday, January 29, 2006

They Feel a Homeland Security Song Coming On

They Feel a Homeland Security Song Coming On
America is at war, its citizens are in dreamland and nothing makes sense anymore. How about a musical?

by Jason Zinoman

NOT many theatrical troupes begin developing a musical by tracking down a former employee of the Department of Homeland Security. But then again, not many theatrical troupes are like the Civilians, a five-year-old collective that has been attracting notice with its inventive and unexpected approach to docudrama.

Indeed, since its creation, the Civilians have carved out their own aesthetic niche in the New York theater scene, attracting a pile of admiring reviews and an all-star lineup of downtown collaborators including the playwright Anne Washburn ("Apparition") and performers like Trey Lyford ("All Wear Bowlers"), Christina Kirk ("[sic]") and Colleen Werthmann ("Miss Witherspoon").

"We're somewhere between 'up and coming' and the Wooster Group," Steve Cosson, the group's artistic director, said with a smile.

Their latest and most political work, "(I Am) Nobody's Lunch," which had its premiere at Performance Space 122 in 2004 and has been revised for its current run uptown at 59E59 Theaters, has already received great reviews. "Snappy, scrappy and performed with deadpan razzmatazz by a young cast of six," Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times last week, "the latest model is a funny, searching, at times plaintive look at the dangerous blurring of fact and myth in American culture."

The show is built on scores of interviews, including those with the disgruntled Homeland Security worker, and Eqyptian student, a former Miss New York, an elderly fan of Fox News and a cult author who thinks George W. Bush is a shape-shifting reptile.

The ensemble piece, which features a cast of game, attractive performers in their 20's and 30's, doesn't have a traditional narrative. Still, it manages to move from idea to idea with the logic and momentum of a classic Broadway musical. And like traditional musicals, it is about love--even though the subject is the Bush administration, the war on terror and the sexuality of Tom Cruise.

"What I found was that when people talked about issues, they always used the language of relationships," said Michael Friedman, the show's composer. "They would say 'I trusted Newsweek until it betrayed me.'"

Mr. Friedman drew a parallel between the public's belief in the Bush administration and a clover's blind faith in his partner. Accordingly, the first number in the show is a love song, and the chorus sings, "I've been thinking a lot about people in love,/ Why they tend to believe things they know can't be real."

Mr. Cosson expanded on the theme: "In the run-up to war, there was all this talk of W.M.D.'s, aluminum tubes and yellow cake, and it seemed plain to me that they were making it up."

With his beard and calm, cerebral manner, Mr. Cosson looks more like a restless graduate student than a theater director. "I wondered: why doesn't everyone believe that they are making it up? And more broadly, how do people know what they know?"

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, where the Civilians had a residence in 2003, praised the troupe's "unique sensibility."

"The Civilians are very interesting because it combines a historian's interest in the world and accumulating facts with a postmodern sensibility that is deeply distrustful of facts," he said.

The troupe's origins can be traced back to the University of California, San Diego, where many of the original 25 company members, including Mr. Cosson, studied under the director Les Waters, who taught the techniques of the British company Joint Stock, including the process of creating collagelike scripts out of interviews conducted without notebook or tape recorder.

It departs from Joint Stock, though, in its embrace of cabaret. The skeleton of most of its shows is formed by a series of tuneful and deceptively revealing songs by Mr. Friedman, whose clever style is as likely to resemble that of Burt Bacharach as of the Beach Boys. While the music in a show by Les Freres Corbusier--another chic young theater company that mixes philosophical subject matter with playful performance methods--adds a layer of distancing irony, Mr. Friedman's songs are heartfelt, sung by the disciplined cast (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Matt Dellapina, Brad Heberlee, Daoud Heidami, Caitlin Miller and Jennifer R. Morris) with the conviction of musical theater stars.

"The songs inject the logic of fiction and interpretation into the show," Mr. Friedman said, adding that they have been used differently in each of the company's shows. "Canard, Canard Goose?" was a book musical, while "Gone Missing" was more like a song cycle. In this one, "The songs interact with the text more," he said, explaining that he used quotes from the interviews as lyrics.

Less than a week before opening night, the actors and production staff, dressed in corduroys and T-shirts, were stuffed into a boxy West Side rehearsal room. Mr. Dellapina, in his socks, practiced sliding across the third floor space, coming dangerously close to a wall of glass, prompting someone to crack a joke about him plummeting to his death.

The cast dashed around the stage, going through the choreography of the number "Song of Progressive Disenchantment." At one point, Ms. Morris, a statuesque brunette with an agile voice, leapt onto a table, holding a large sleeping bag open, adding to the summer camp feel of the room. Mr. Cosson interjected some advice on how to best hold the bag to make it look like a certain female body part.

"Nobody's Lunch" can seem like a mess of contradictions--cynical and sentimental, deadly serious and frivolously silly, accessible and obscure. To some degree, it's a result of its collaborative process. The original cast (of which only two, Mr. Heidami and Ms. Miller, remain) conducted all the interviews and transcribed them by memory, before Mr. Cosson edited the stack of material. But it's also because of the unusual diversity of voices packed into one show.

Despite its contradictions, it ultimately makes a straightforward argument for the virtue of caring about more than whom Tom Cruise is sleeping with. "We are saying that there is in fact no absolute truth, but at the same time, you must commit to the truth," Mr. Cosson said. "If citizens don't actively push to know what the real story is, what the facts are, then the truth will be determined by whoever has the most power."

Photograph: Leslie Lyons
From left, Matt Dellapina, Daoud Heidami and Brad Heberlee in "(I Am) Nobody's Lunch" at the 59E59 Theaters.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

(I Am) Nobody's Lunch

Written and directed by Steve Cosson. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. With ensemble cast. 59E59.

by Adam Feldman

The Civilians' rich, resourceful and brain-tickling docu-musical (I Am) Nobody's Lunch is that exceedingly rare show that leaves you thinking, laughing and humming all at once. Steve Cosson's script is a dazzling cut-and-paste job, compiled from interviews the company conducted with a wide assortment of subjects--from psychics to National Guardsmen--whose juxtaposed responses explore an America in which fact and fantasy blur together, and knowingness stands in for knowledge. The show's songs and vignettes flow into a waterfall of question marks: What is that mysterious green sports bag doing onstage, and why is it meowing like a cat? Is the CIA torturing prisoners? Are aliens farming our fear? Can we trust the news? And--perhaps most important--is Tom Cruise gay?

The sui generis format of (I AM) Nobody's Lunch--epistemological vaudeville--allows an elegant balance of intellectual inquisitiveness, political comment and sly entertainment. Even as the quasi-documentary text tethers the show to specific human reality, Michael Friedman's superb songs (tuneful in an olio of styles, with lyrics that cleverly mix erudition and jarring banality) provide occasion for canny irony. And Cosson's skilled, casually polymorphous cast of six--including Jennifer R. Morris, Daoud Heidami and the perfectly hilarious Caitlin Miller, whose praises this reviewer lacks the words to sing--conveys a range of strange opinions without condescension. Be sure to catch the show in its too-brief run at 59E59, if you can still find a ticket: The Civilians may once have been a well-kept secret, but the cat's getting out of the bag.

Photograph: Leslie Lyons
SPIES LIKE US The Civilians experiment with espionage. [Photo of Brad Heberlee, Quincy Bernstine, Daoud Heidami, and Jennifer R. Morris]


Monday, January 23, 2006

A Funny and Sad Look at Facts, Myths and Spin

by Charles Isherwood

The elusiveness of truth in a culture swamped with stuff that looks, sounds and smells like information - but may be something a little more suspicious - is the serious subject of "(I Am) Nobody's Lunch," a merrily unserious, vaudevillian romp through the anxious chatter of contemporary America, which opened last night at the 59E59 Theaters.

Performed by the Civilians, a much buzzed-about downtown theater troupe, this informal sociological study recast as a cabaret has been thoroughly revamped (and modestly renamed) after its run last fall at P.S. 122 under the title "Nobody's Lunch." Snappy, scrappy and performed with deadpan razzmatazz by a young cast of six, the latest model is a funny, searching, at times plaintive look at the dangerous blurring of fact and myth in American culture and the unease that is its natural byproduct.

Written and directed by Steven Cosson, with perky pastiche songs by Michael Friedman, the production is the latest entry in the growing documentary theater movement, which has snowballed in recent years, possibly in reaction to a phenomenon the show explores, the growing mistrust of "traditional" sources of news. "That's why I stopped watching the news," someone whines in the show. "They tell you one thing and then they tell you something else." The nerve!

How and why we come to believe what we believe is the large question being explored with a wink in this collage of material culled from interviews with an odd assortment of Americans, ranging from soldiers standing vigil at Grand Central Terminal to a fellow who believes his body is inhabited by a celestial being who has useful tips on dispelling the fog of fear that has enveloped the country since 9/11.

The smaller questions posed by the Civilians in their researches range from major (moral justification of the Iraq invasion) to minor (sexuality of a certain gleaming movie star), and the responses have been mixed and matched to create a kaleidoscopic peek into the American mindscape, with a distinct accent on the absurdity thereof.

Caitlin Miller, a wonderfully droll mimic, plays several women named Jessica Lynch, all asked to describe the dramaturgy behind their namesake's misadventure in Iraq. "Wait, are they saying there was no Jessica Lynch?" asks one. "Or, oh, just that maybe it didn't happen the way they said it did. I don't know. I've never heard that. But, you know, I wouldn't be surprised."

That last phrase - emblematic of the exasperated blend of apathy and suspicion that is a recurring motif in the show - is a refrain in one of Mr. Friedman's ably structured little ditties. The songs provide a soft underscoring of melancholy that deepens the picture of general cluelessness that predominates, slipping some sympathy into a snarky recipe.

In a solo performed by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, the highly charged question of trading civil liberties for security is turned into an old-school, need-me-a-strong-man lament: "I just want to sit back and be told, to be controlled, to be secure. ..." A tart Kurt Weill knockoff, "Song of Progressive Disenchantment," compares the search for love to the search for truth, both ending in disillusionment, natch.

Mr. Cosson and his collaborators are not just survey takers presenting their results dispassionately, of course, and they can be legitimately accused of drawing conclusions as facile as they are clever. Implicitly condemning Americans' willingness to ingest spin, they're busy spinning their "data" themselves to maximize its entertainment value. Voices of reason - a harried young worker in the government's immigration department stands out - get less air time than the more amusing voices of near or actual lunacy.

All good fun, up to a point, but sometimes the juxtaposition of testimony is troubling. One sequence features a reading from a Newsweek magazine article about the plight of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Arab descent whose reports of being abducted in Macedonia and held at a United States prison in Afghanistan have been corroborated. It's immediately followed by a reading from a book called "Trance Formation of America: The True Life Story of a C.I.A. Mind Control Slave," in which the author says that an L. L. Bean outlet is a "front cover for C.I.A. activity" and that she was sexually abused by a host of well-known public figures.

Ha, ha. But wait a second, what exactly is the point being made by the twinning of these excerpts? Surely not that both narratives are equally credible or equally significant. Nor can it be argued that both are held to be true by an equal number of Americans; "Trance Formation" is hardly a best seller. It's the Civilians who have juxtaposed these stories, to admittedly surreal effect. But it's worth asking whether, in doing so, they aren't becoming part of the problem. Placed in the right context, almost any truth can be made to seem false or absurd.

"(I Am) Nobody's Lunch" does not, of course, aim to be a sober or thorough study of the current state of the cultural discourse; it's more a cheeky sidelong glance at its excesses, similar in attitude and methodology to "The Daily Show," and similarly tonic. Amusing as it is, it may be most memorable for the spotlight it beams on the atmosphere of fear and anxiety that has blanketed the country since 9/11 rattled our sense of complacency, the sense of uncertainty that inspires the urge to turn away from the big questions and take refuge in the diverting allure of the little ones.

Speaking of which, on the question of that movie star's sexual orientation, my friend's decorator knows his former assistant, and he says he's definitely gay.

(I Am) Nobody's Lunch

Written and directed by Steven Cosson; music and lyrics by Michael Friedman; sets by Andromache Chalfant; costumes by Sarah Beers; sound by Shane Rettig; lighting by Marcus Doshi; stage manager, Catherine Bloch; assistant stage manager, Robert Signom III; choreographer, Karinne Keithley. Presented by the Civilians, Mr. Cosson, artistic director; Kyle Gorden, producing director. At 59E59Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan; (212) 279-4200. Through Feb. 5. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

WITH: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Matt Dellapina, Brad Heberlee, Daoud Heidami, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris and Andy Boroson, piano.

Photograph: Leslie Lyons
From left, Jennifer R. Morris, Brad Heberlee, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Matt Dellapina (on bed), Caitlin Miller and Daoud Heidami in "(I Am) Nobody's Lunch," which explores mistrust of traditional news sources.