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.