Friday, April 28, 2006

Satire with side of ham in `Lunch'

by Terry Byrne

Presented by American Repertory Theatre and World Music/CRASH Arts at Zero Arrow Theatre, Cambridge, through Sunday.

Tom Cruise, Jessica Lynch, SpongeBob and Schrodinger's Cat all find their way into the hilarious and heady "(I am) Nobody's Lunch." The cabaret show ("That means there's no story," one performer helpfully explains), which is having its New England premiere at Zero Arrow Theatre, is delivered by the six-member Civilians, a talented troupe that combines the comic timing of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch with impressive vocals and sleek choreography.

In a delirious 90 minutes, the Civilians skewer our fascination with truth in trivia even as we blithely accept ridiculous lies on important issues. The show intercuts musical numbers with interviews the company did with a wild assortment of people - from a Homeland Security policymaker to an elderly Jewish woman, from a soldier guarding Grand Central Station with an unloaded gun to a teenager with body piercings in "super-secret places."

The result is an informational download that seems random yet has a surprisingly sharp focus. The pieces are held together by Michael Friedman's haunting music and lyrics, which range from the torchy ballad "Someone to Keep Me Warm" to the Kurt Weill-like "Watch Out Ladies." Lexy Friedell's chanteuse style makes Friedman's lyrics about wanting someone to "print and card her" ("I need to feel his power") sexy and scary at once. The company is equally effective in "It's Scary How Easy It Is."

The politics of this talented troupe is abundantly clear, but the way they present their material allows the audience to discover it in its own way. In the midst of the madness, they move a gym bag with a meowing cat zipped inside on and off the stage. It's time, they seem to say, to let the cat out of the bag.

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


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Turning the sad truth into spirited satire

by Ed Siegel, Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE -- How do we know if we can handle the truth if it's impossible to tell what the truth is? In a world in which one ranting voice drowns out another and 24-hour news channels careen from the war in Iraq to Tom Cruise's personal life, it's getting harder than ever to tell what's what.

Enter the Civilians, a vibrant sextet of satirists who charge their way into our contemporary Tower of Babel, taking the measure of what we know and what we don't know. Or what we think we know and what we think we don't know. Though they're surveying a sad state of affairs in their latest show, ''(I Am) Nobody's Lunch," it's as high-spirited a lamentation as you could hope for.

Like many on today's theater scene, the Civilians create drama using interviews as raw material. They talk to people ordinary -- civilians, hence the name -- such as an elderly liberal schoolteacher, or not so ordinary, such as a man who thinks he's channeling a space alien.

The questions they ask are as seemingly simple as ''What are you afraid of?" and ''How do we know what we know?" Bolstered by Michael Friedman's witty songs, the three men and three women onstage play out the answers.

But this isn't one of those Anna Deavere Smith knockoffs in which the words of interviewees are directly regurgitated. Here interviews are juxtaposed against one another in comedy skits, turned into song, sometimes even turned inside out.

Friedman's songs include a sensational riff on Brecht-Weill's ''Pirate Jenny" toward the end of the show, with allusions to suicide, paranoia, and all kinds of other fun stuff. Jennifer Morris, who delivers the number, and her mates are fine singers as well as actors, handling poppy tunes with understated style while pulling out all the stops on the Brechtian material. The poker faces contrast beautifully with the implied satire.

To what purpose? The society they survey has more information than ever, less violence than ever, more romantic possibilities than ever. So why do so many people seem so uninformed, paranoid, and disconnected? Conversely, why do so many other people seem so sure of themselves, whether they're proselytizing for Jesus or for space aliens?

One man thinks that the United States may have been responsible for 9/11; another is an Arab-American who thinks his phone line is being tapped. What often emerges, as the actors speak, is a deep distrust of established institutions, such as the media and political parties. There's nothing that binds us together anymore, and the cacophony that results only feeds into disunion and alienation.

''It's like the people have forgotten how to feel pain," says one elderly respondent. Another talks about withdrawing into her world of boyfriend, family, and 15 D.C. friends.

But the show is not a sociology textbook. The mood is more in the breezy spirit of ''Avenue Q" meeting Tom Lehrer. Morris plays a variety of ditzy redheads as well as several women named Jessica Lynch, who are asked what they think of the captured soldier. There's a knee-jerk patriotism in most cases, followed by humorously conflicting thoughts about what happened.

On the negative side, ''(I Am) Nobody's Lunch" takes at least a third of the 90 minutes to get going, or at least to establish its direction, and at its worst can seem overly glib. But once it got me on its wavelength, it kept me there.

And it is not as relativistic as it might seem about the truth. There's a duffel bag onstage from which cat's meows keep emanating. Is there a cat in the bag or not? The answer has to be either yes or no. But as ''(I Am) Nobody's Lunch" reminds us, it's getting harder to come up with where the truth lies.


Sunday, April 23, 2006

Theater troupe gets creative with the facts For Civilians, interviews are just the start

by Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff

The work of the Civilians, a New York theater troupe that makes its New England debut this week at Zero Arrow Theatre in Cambridge, often gets labeled "documentary theater." But founder and artistic director Steven Cosson says that's not quite right.

"I don't call it documentary," Cosson says in a phone interview. "It's a mix between investigative and creative."

What that means for the Civilians show that the American Repertory Theatre and CRASHarts are presenting here, "(I Am) Nobody's Lunch," is that the Civilians' six actors interviewed a range of people -- from a Homeland Security planner to every Jessica Lynch in the phone book who'd talk to them -- to find out what they knew about what's going on in the world. Or, as Cosson puts it, "We wanted to know how people figure out what to believe. How is it that people know what they know? And our emphasis really is on how -- not on what facts do people have or not have, but on how they got them."

The Civilians have won praise for their entertaining mix of hilarious storytelling and serious thought, which distills the material they collect in interviews into a fast-paced, cabaret-style performance of loosely linked scenes about the various "characters" they've talked with. Their shows also include music; composer Michael Friedman provides original songs for ''Nobody's Lunch."

For this show, in talking to a diverse group of people about politics, the Iraq war, the Bush administration, and many other current topics, Cosson says, the Civilians "learned how to ask questions open-ended enough to let people tell us how they understand the world." So, for example, they might simply ask, "How do you know what's true?"

"We'd get a different answer depending on the person," Cosson says. "One might say, 'Well, I read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and then I go online and read the Guardian, and then I compare it all and put it all together to see what's going on.' Somebody else might just talk about their mother. One woman said the only thing she trusted was the squirrels and the pigeons."

That one didn't make the cut for the show, Cosson says, but the troupe did find room for other views that are just about as far from the mainstream. In fact, they talked to someone who purports to channel an alien -- and found it surprisingly enlightening.

"He's got a lot of information; he's, like, 40,000 years old," Cosson says. "Whatever's going on, however you take it, he's a very helpful character."

The Civilians have been conducting this kind of creative investigation since 2001, when their first piece led them to upstate New York to explore a rumor that the Walt Disney Company, after filming "Fly Away Home," had abandoned the starring geese to freeze to death on a lake. The Civilians soon found that legend to be false, and their resulting work, "Canard, Canard, Goose?," was as much a reflection on rumor and belief as it was a tale about a wild goose chase. But the geese made for some good laughs -- and brought the company critical acclaim.

As for ''Nobody's Lunch," says ART associate director Gideon Lester, ''I think it's the most mature piece they've done. It's the first time where the questions they've been investigating have been really serious. It's frivolous on one level, but the questions that they ask stimulate really provocative considerations of how content people are not to know very much about the news."

In an earlier version, the piece received strong reviews in New York. The Civilians have revised it extensively to keep it current, Lester says, and will take the new version to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, then on to London in the fall. "It's got wide audience appeal," Lester says. "It's smart, sexy, very funny, and at the same time not empty of content."

One thing that differentiates the Civilians' work from documentary is that, when the Civilians do interviews, they don't use a tape recorder -- or even a notebook. Instead, they listen closely, observe, interact, then right after the encounter transcribe everything they remember about it.

"It's not like it's the real truth of the person, but another person's interpretation of that truth, turned into performance," Cosson says. Any presentation, he notes, is subjective, and this method is no different. But he does believe it provides "a kind of detail that is truthful and maybe different from what goes for truth in the theater. It's meant to scrape off some of what we think is true in theater and show something different."

As an example of how the Civilians reach a more complicated "truth" by talking with real people, Cosson cites an Egyptian student whom one actor called to interview shortly after all foreign students in the United States were ordered to register with the federal government. "At the end he said, 'Oh, you know, I don't want to talk about this over the phone. I think Arabian people's phones are tapped; I think the US is watching Arabs,' " Cosson relates. "If you gave that to an actor, I think most of them would give it a very intense reading, maybe sort of quiet, almost a whisper. But he actually said it fairly loud, and, maybe from the tension of talking about it, he giggled all the way through."

Ultimately, "there's something edifying in doing interviews with all different sorts of people," Cosson says. "There was a consistent thread of people feeling underestimated [by the government and the media] and wanting more. . . . So many people said, 'I don't care about Paris Hilton.' So who are all these people who do want to know? Is it really nobody? . . . We've all sort of agreed to be stupid, but we're not, really. It's this weird American phenomenon.