Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I Am Nobody's Lunch

A song-and-dance show in Edinburgh about contemporary cynicism and mistrust? It might sound weird, but it works.

by Tiffany Jenkins

I Am Nobody’s Lunch is a witty song-and-dance show about uncertainty and truth. In the words of the Civilians, the New York theatre company that produced the play, it is ‘a cabaret about how we know what we know when nobody knows if everyone else is lying and when someone or something wants to have you for lunch’. It has just finished its run at the Edinburgh Festival and is now set to travel around the country. It is well worth a look.

I saw it just after 10/8, when police in England apparently smashed an alleged terrorist plot to bring down planes flying between Britain and the US. Almost instantly following those arrests, conspiracy theories began to circulate: Who was really behind the plot? Did the government make it up in order to distract public attention from the Israel-Lebanon war and Britain’s failure to do anything about it? Such paranoid chatter was a fitting backdrop, as I Am Nobody’s Lunch explores how people cope in today’s climate, when old sources of authority – in particular the press and the government – have lost credibility and we seem unsure about whom to listen to and believe.

The Civilians work in a documentary style. They interview members of the public, analyse their comments, and then edit them to produce a play. For I Am Nobody’s Lunch they talked to people about how they know what they know: how can they be sure what is right and true? And before you think to yourself, ‘God, not another play constructed from “authentic voices”’, which so often end up being banal and all over the place, in fact in this instance it works.

Steven Cosson, artistic director of the Civilians, explained that many people they spoke to often seemed willing to see cynical motives behind various events. ‘What became the anthem for the moment, and therefore became a song [in the show], was that almost everyone we talked to said “you know, I wouldn’t be surprised” at some point during any bad tale. And we realised that everyone seemed to disbelieve anything, but they did not necessarily believe anything.’

As a solider says on stage: ‘No, I don’t really believe what they tell us in the news. The trick is to look at what they’re not telling you…. They tell you they’ve got a tape of Osama bin Laden talking but it’s probably a fake. He’s not speaking in English. What’s the voice saying? We don’t know.’ The play brings out a sense of doubt that seems to lurk in all of us.

The show also contains a sparkling sketch about a bag, left behind by someone, which emits strange and disorienting sounds; musings on who really carried out 9/11; thoughts about Tom Cruise and which way he swings; the story of someone who believes his body is inhabited by a celestial being; and various witty and original ditties written by Michael Friedman, including the ‘Song of Progressive Disenchantment’.

Actress Caitlin Miller plays several different women named Jessica Lynch, all of whom are asked to describe their reaction to the tale of their namesake’s experiences 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.’

The production speaks to the consequences of uncertainty, which, as Cosson explains, can be detrimental: ‘Doubt is so corrosive. When you lose the fundamental ability to know what you know, that’s what basic core trust is, and then everything can start to fall apart and it contributes to a sense of fear.’ As one character from the Department for Homeland Security says during the show: ‘No, I don’t feel safe. I am not afraid that our building is going to blow up. I’m afraid of the whole world.’

I Am Nobody’s Lunch is quirky and revealing. But it has been criticised for not being definitive enough and for not providing an answer to why people seem so doubtful and mistrustful these days. This is wrong-headed. Theatre and the arts first have to capture a kind of truth, to explore what things are like and what is going on. As Cosson told me: ‘There is no make-or-break moment, working in the way we work. It’s more a landscape painting.’

To demand a polemic would be to turn the show into agitprop, or to make it transmit moral messages that would sit awkwardly next to the lightness and wittiness of this piece of theatre. Even so, there is more direction in the play than some have appreciated. As the wise old alien character states: ‘If you believe completely or if you disbelieve completely then either way you are a leaf in the wind. My boy, yes of course there is no absolute truth but you must insist on the truth. You must participate in the truth. And this is not something you can do by yourself.’

Cosson says he found the experience of interviewing people surprisingly reassuring. ‘Lots of people would interrogate us back, want to know what we were doing and put us on the spot. That was good. In a fundamental way, after listening to people about this, I realised that we work out what is true through being social. That is, even if you hear things through a mad media outlet, you test it out in human relationships. We need to engage more and think more with each other.’

The play may be about spiralling disorientation, but it is not nearly as pessimistic as many other productions on in Edinburgh and elsewhere at the moment; instead, it puts a (little) faith in people to think and work together in order to sort things out. It’s a cute cabaret that exposes the everyday consequences of distrust and anxiety. Check it out if it opens in a theatre near you.

Tiffany Jenkins is a writer and researcher based in Edinburgh. I Am Nobody’s Lunch ran at the Assembly in George Street, Edinburgh, until 28 August. It opens at the Soho Theatre in London in September.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Edinburgh theatre round up

by Jane Edwardes

Time Out finds more excellent offerings at the Edinburgh Festival

Vicky Featherstone, the National Theatre of Scotland’s artistic director, must be absolutely delighted with the huge impact her company has made at its very first Edinburgh Festival. Last week, my colleague Rachel Halliburton raved about ‘Black Watch’, a joint production between the NTS and the Traverse which must surely come to London. Now it’s my turn to cheer as the NTS collaborates with the International Festival on Anthony Neilson’s semi-improvised play ‘Realism’.

In 1991, Neilson staged ‘Normal: the story of the Düsseldorf Ripper’ on the Edinburgh Fringe, and he’s been shocking audiences ever since. You don’t usually look to him for laughs and the title of his new play suggests a dose of kitchen-sink drama with a splash of Zola. Instead, it’s a fanciful, occasionally blokeish description of a day in the head of Stuart, played by Stuart McQuarrie in his underpants with a mix of belligerence and neediness. As he hangs out in his flat, the only thing we know for sure is that he puts his clothes in the washing machine.

All the rest is strung together from that inner, uncensored dialogue that runs through all our heads and which is, thankfully, usually hidden.

Alongside sexual fantasies, conversations with girlfriends past and present, and imagining his own funeral, he interrupts the panel members on ‘Any Questions’ to make a point that renders them speechless, demolishes a cold caller, and slags off the gas board with a song and dance number that includes the Black and White Minstrels. Miriam Buether’s set is suitably fantastic. Distorted everyday objects sit in a pile of sand, while a man-sized, disdainful cat called Galloway (lest we forget ‘Big Brother’) flounces across the stage. After just over an hour of such intimacy, it’s a shock when the final scene reveals Stuart to be sitting in a realistic kitchen, once again an unknowable human being. Neilson’s ‘The Wonderful World of Dissocia’, a hit at the festival two years ago, never made it to London. Let’s hope that someone is more adventurous this time.

‘Troilus and Cressida’, the International Festival’s other offering last week, made the news for all the wrong reasons when the first night had to be cancelled halfway through because the set had jammed. Director Peter Stein has a bit of a reputation for making huge scenic demands; in this case, the walls of Troy judder backwards and forwards before tipping back (or not tipping back) to create a burnished slope on which the final battle is fought. The Greek tents move across the stage like giant Daleks. For one of Shakespeare’s most bitter plays, Stein provides a graphic portrayal of vanity, lust, betrayal and corruption. The muscles of the Trojan soldiers ripple – the actors must have spent months in the gym – as they walk down a catwalk displaying their skimpy skirts to Pandarus and Cressida. Hector reasonably argues that Helen is not worth sacrificing Trojan lives for, but Troilus counters more romantically on Paris’ side; the latter shows his gratitude by organising the exchange of Cressida for a prisoner of war. The war doesn’t seem real – more like an afternoon outing – until the bisexual Achilles sees red after the death of Patroclus and dishonourably kills Hector.

Henry Pettigrew’s intense Troilus and Annabel Scholey’s knowing Cressida are clearly mismatched from the start but still spurred on by Paul Jesson’s voyeuristic Pandarus, an old roué who appears to be dying of a cough rather than syphilis. Ian Hughes’s Thersites rants dangerously at his superiors. Stein’s production has the great virtue of clarity but sometimes misses out on passion and urgency. The production goes to Stratford at the beginning of September.

Stein avoids overt comparisons with Iraq, but you are never far from the war elsewhere. Two shows deal with information overload and how difficult we find it to discern what is true and what is not. Is the hairdresser to be trusted more than the journalist? The more sophisticated is ‘(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch’, a revue presented by a New York company called The Civilians which will shortly come to the Soho Theatre and is loosely based on interviews with an eclectic mix of Americans, including those who share the name of Jessica Lynch. Everybody has an opinion on Tom Cruise’s love life, but they are less certain when asked about Lynch’s rescue. The actors are hugely talented and sing sweetly – but the connection between the pastiche songs and the material isn’t always clear and the presence of a man who believes he’s an extra-terrestrial feeding our fears is a whimsical step too far. ‘What I Heard About Iraq’ at the Pleasance is far more straightforward, a collection of quotes from the leading politicians, soldiers, and those living in Iraq, stretching back to before September 11. The tone is unnecessarily strident – the quotes speak all too clearly for themselves.

The smell of bad faith is far too rank to be missed.

Realism *****
Troilus and Cressida *****
(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch ****
What I Heard About Iraq ****


Friday, August 18, 2006

(I am) Nobody's Lunch

Robert Dawson Scott at Assembly

There are a lot of Americans in Edinburgh this year wondering what happened to their country. They don’t recognise a land dominated by religious fundamentalists — though, given that the Pilgrim Fathers quit England early in the 17th century because they thought it was a degenerate den of iniquity, perhaps they should not be so surprised.

But from the youthful, confused exuberance of Particularly in the Heartland, by the Theatre of the Emerging American Moment at the Traverse, to the cynical Levelland by the comic turned playwright Rich Hall, they clearly are having trouble connecting the land of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July with the world of Rush Limbaugh and approaching Armageddon, in which so many Americans apparently believe.

Perhaps the only form grotesque enough to encompass the confusion is cabaret. (I am) Nobody’s Lunch, from the Civilians company of New York, has a script as sharp as a tack, clever songs, five terrific singer/performers led by the flame-haired Caitlin Miller, one pianist and a candy-striped set like a fairground tent.

What makes it all the more piquant is that almost everything said is based on verbatim interviews with Americans who were asked why they believed what they believed, mostly, though not exclusively about current events. The title comes from one particular line of thought, that we may all be some alien creature’s putative midday meal (belief in little green men is almost as widespread as belief in God in the US).

If the script is sharp, the music (by Michael Friedman) is sharper still. Even the harmonies have a fractured quality to them, reminiscent of Kurt Weill, putting one in mind of another time when cabaret flourished, the imploding Germany of the 1930s. My, how we laughed at the satire of the madness of the times, just as we laugh now.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Serena Davies reviews Improbable Frequency, (I Am) Nobody's Lunch and Taylor Mac

Three exceptional fringe shows are serving up variations on vaudeville. Irish company Rough Magic's Improbable Frequency is a crazed, delightful musical starring a machine called PAT - "Probability Adjustment Tank".

PAT is responsible for such surprising phenomena as the songs on the radio forecasting the weather and compromising neutrality in Ireland during the Second World War (where the play is set). Six flawless performers act out their unlikely tale in (unlikely) verse and song.

Some gags are pantomime: John Betjeman (yes, the portly poet) suggests they levitate because, "he doesn't understand the gravity of the situation". Others are more subtle: an Irish lass in carnal embrace with an English spy bemoans the fact that she's been "Infiltrated by British Intelligence: / Oxymoronic as well as a sin."

Also with a wit of its own is (I Am) Nobody's Lunch, a "cabaret docudrama" from the precocious young American company, the Civilians.

Drawn from real-life interviews that the cast made with everyone from a former Miss New York to a soldier, the piece tackles the ambitious question of how we know what to believe when everybody seems to be lying.

Its subjects range from lovers' mutual distrust to whether Tom Cruise is gay, and it is far funnier than its existential theme suggests. Yet its fierce engagement with the current crisis of confidence in American politicians is also deeply moving.

Add to this, disarmingly pretty songs and eccentric robotic dancing and it makes for a heady mix of poignancy and mirth.

Theatre or performance art ("which is just a fancy way of saying 'drag'") - Taylor Mac doesn't know what his shows are.

But this tall New York cross-dresser with a tiny ukulele is one of the most jaw-dropping things on the fringe this year, not least on account of his mesmerising beauty.

Bejewelled golden dreadlocks frame a face made up like a cross between a Venetian mask and David Bowie in his Aladdin Sane phase. In gorgeous homemade dresses, he sings songs demanding "the revolution will not be masculinised" and dissecting his love life.

It's camp and very naughty, yet suddenly devastating. This man in his perfect mask is a Pierrot figure for the modern age, all broken heart and outsider insight.

'Improbable Frequency' until Aug 27. Tickets: 0131 228 1404. 'Nobody's Lunch' until Aug 28. Tickets: 0131 226 2428. Taylor Mac until Aug 27. Tickets: 0870 745 3083.


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Collaboration in the Catskills: A Retreat for the (Theater) Troupes

by Alexis Soloski

Maplecrest, N.Y.

AT Sugar Maples, a derelict summer resort perched here atop the northern Catskills, the Olympic-size swimming pool has been filled with concrete, and the roller skating rink has fallen into grave disrepair. Waist-high weeds obscure the ball fields. Roofs list, and doors dangle on their hinges. But in this dilapidated holiday spot, a new arts group, the Orchard Project, sees a warm-weather retreat for innovative theater artists. While other residencies, like the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, are devoted to playwrights only or playwright-director teams, the Orchard Project will try to serve entire companies who create work collaboratively.

Ari Edelson, the Orchard Project’s artistic director, met his co-founders, Piers and Lucy Playfair, two years ago at a benefit for Old Vic/New Voices, a program started by Mr. Edelson that sends up-and-coming New York playwrights to London and brings British playwrights to New York. Mr. Playfair, the chief investment officer of a private equity firm, Bassini Playfair Wright, had recently become involved with the nonprofit Catskill Mountain Foundation, which has raised $8 million to revitalize upstate New York towns through arts initiatives.

As Mr. Playfair’s family tree features a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate and a knighted theater director, he naturally felt that the foundation should sponsor more theater. Impressed with Mr. Edelson, Mr. Playfair told him: “Come upstate. There’s all this theatrical hardware, maybe you can think of something to do with it.”

Speaking from Tokyo, where he is preparing a production of “Blood Wedding,” Mr. Edelson remembered his initial visit to the area. He toured a movie theater the foundation had revamped, as well as the Red Barn performance space and another cinema, the New Orpheum, that will reopen as a 265-seat theater next summer. Then Mr. Playfair drove him to Sugar Maples, an 80-acre, 22-building campus recently donated to the foundation.

“I started plodding through this property, this ghost town ‘Dirty Dancing’ resort,” Mr. Edelson said. “It was amazing.” He said he knew immediately how the space should be used and told Mr. Playfair, “Writers have the O’Neill, writer-director teams have Sundance, but there’s nowhere for companies to go.’ ”

Intrigued, Mr. Playfair signed on as the project’s chairman, and his wife stepped in as the development director. With horticultural metaphors of fruition and a dash of Chekhov, they named their venture the Orchard Project and set to work developing a business plan and persuading Peter Finn, the chairman of the Catskill Mountain Foundation and the chief executive of the public relations firm Ruder Finn, to let them use Sugar Maples.

Eventually Sugar Maples will include four rehearsal spaces, costume and prop storage, and housing for 70 participants. For now only five buildings have been renovated, and four more are near completion, but these primarily serve the organic farm and visual arts institute that share the campus.

Dormitories and dining areas were not ready in time for the Orchard Project’s inaugural season this summer. Nevertheless the Civilians, a quasi-documentary company in Manhattan best known for musical shows, arrived in June with two projects. Mr. Edelson, under the aegis of another Manhattan troupe, the Play Company, arrived with one. For two weeks writers, directors, composers and actors lived together in three donated houses in the town of Hunter, a short drive from Maplecrest, and rehearsed in the foundation’s movie theater.

Caitlin Miller, a writer and performer with the Civilians, spent her time on “Way to Go!,” a one-woman show that examines the separation of church and state. Her goal was to transform it from a three-part piece into a cohesive evening. “I still have a lot more work to do,” she admitted. “But when you have the time, and you don’t have other distractions, it’s amazing how much can get done. Poor cellphone service could make for great art.”

Her colleague Steve Cosson, a director, went upstate with the playwright Neal Bell and a group of Civilians actors to work on Mr. Bell’s “Shadow of Himself,” which combines the contemporary military with the epic of Gilgamesh. Mr. Cosson explained: “I wanted to discover with the actors how they could play these different kinds of realities that coexist within the play. I’m really glad we had four days to do that out in the woods and not in the first week of rehearsal in a three-week rehearsal process.”

Mr. Edelson was working with a composer, Jamshied Sharifi, and an Iranian-American journalist, Roya Hakakian, on an adaptation of Ms. Hakakian’s memoir “Journey From the Land of No.” In the evenings members of the companies ate together and chatted.

“What amazed Roya,” Mr. Edelson said, “was how the Civilians operate and the unique joint stock process that the Civilians use to create work. And what amazed the Civilians were the ways we were taking a memoir that was all first-person account and turning it into something else.”

Mr. Cosson remembered the evening talks somewhat differently, “I’d like to say that we had deep soul-searching artistic conversations, but mostly we talked about pie.” Apparently the lemon meringue was excellent.

According to its mission statement, one of the Orchard Project’s foremost goals is “engineering collaboration,” staggering scheduling so that companies can watch one another work. But how do you engineer anything more collaborative than swapped dessert recipes? This week the second part of the project’s pilot season will begin, with 24 representatives from 24 companies on hand to produce a version of “The 24-hour Plays,” in which artists race the clock to produce new work.

“I’ve got someone from the Royal Shakespeare Company,” Mr. Edelson said, “someone from Radiohole, and someone from this Brooklyn puppet company, Drama of Works — such a hodgepodge. Hopefully it will be a way for us to get to know a few companies who we might look at for the Orchard Project.”

Still, more spadework is needed before any companies can be invited back. Though the project has the promise of new buildings and an impressive advisory board (including P.S. 122’s Vallejo Ganter and the Tectonic Theater Project’s Moises Kaufman), it still must clarify its abilities and aims. The mission statement and business plan are ambitious but diffuse, with many goals and proposals in discussion: an apprentice company, courses for writers and performers, and a two-week theater festival.

Before next summer officers have to establish an application process, decide their criteria for successful projects, start raising money and determine just how an array of bucolic rehearsal spaces will help make the Catskills an arts destination.

In the meantime there are mundane details, like sewage permits, to see to. “We’re waiting for approval to flush the toilets,” Mr. Edelson said. “Then we can house some artists.”

After the first season he and the Playfairs remain optimistic, confident that their project can benefit theater troupes. Mr. Playfair, for one, has overcome some initial reservations. “I thought, all we’re doing is giving 20 people a holiday in the Catskills,” he said. “But I don’t believe that at all now.”

[Photo by Dean Strober: At the Orchard Project, Steve Cosson, left, directs the Civilians company in a play reading.]


So how do we know what we know when nobody knows who's lying?

by Jackie McGlone

Stephen Sondheim is a fan of The Civilians, the documentary cabaret theatre company that is one of New York's hottest tickets. I know the composer likes them, because he's sitting next to me at the company's final performance of their sell-out show (I Am) Nobody's Lunch. Along with the rest of the midtown Manhattan audience, Sondheim is splitting his sides at the production, described by the New York Times as "a vaudevillian romp through the anxious chatter of contemporary America... performed with deadpan razzmatazz".

Now the six-strong ensemble bring their docu-drama, which is often as poignant as it is amusing, to Edinburgh, where Fringe-goers will discover a musical like no other, since it is about the Bush administration, the war on terror and Tom Cruise's sexuality. It is also about the search for love and has been compiled from scores of interviews with a wide assortment of people.

Led by artistic director and writer Steve Cosson, the company tracked down a disaffected worker from Homeland Security, a former Miss New York, a cult author who thinks Bush is a shape-changing reptile, an Egyptian student, an elderly fan of Fox News, and a psychic. They also called up everyone they could find with the name Jessica Lynch, asking the women to tell everything they knew about their namesake, the Jessica Lynch captured in Iraq.

The actors, explains Cosson, did all the interviews, then transcribed them from memory, before he edited the stack of material, which poses pertinent questions such as: Can we trust the news? Is the CIA torturing prisoners? How do we know what we know when nobody knows if everyone else is lying and when someone or something wants to have you for lunch? If the latter convoluted sentence reads as if it might have been written by Donald Rumsfeld himself, that's the idea.

Cosson's script for (I Am) Nobody's Lunch is a sparkling cut-and-paste job, exploring an America in which fact and fantastical fiction blur together, but it's done with all the verve and panache of a classic Broadway musical, with tuneful music and sassy lyrics by Michael Friedman, who has come up with numbers such as the self-explanatory 'Song of Progressive Disenchantment' and 'It's Scary How Easy It Is', in which blind faith in the government is compared to belief in a religious cult.

The show, which transfers to London's Soho Theatre after Edinburgh, has been re-cast and tweaked, but Cosson insists the premise is still: "How do people know what they know? How do they believe what they believe?"

He formed the company while studying at the University of California, San Diego, under British director Les Waters, who taught the techniques of Joint Stock, the renowned company of which he was a member. They used collage-like scripts made up from interviews, always conducted without notebook, pencil or tape recorder.

"It's not journalism," says Cosson, adding that the element of cabaret they have introduced differs from Joint Stock's approach because he wanted The Civilians to have a uniquely American angle.

Cosson formed his Obie-awardwinning company with a group of 25 graduates he met at college, although he first began writing plays when he was a child. Their 2002 debut show, Canard, Canard, Goose? parodied their botched attempt to expose avian abuse in upstate New York, and set out their mission statement: "We think pretty hard about stuff - then make a show about it."

Since then they have staged Gone Missing, a post-9/11 musical in which half a dozen actors play 30 characters and tell stories about things that they have lost. In 2004, their next show, The Ladies, centred on four first ladies: Eva Peron, Mrs Ceausescu, Madame Mao and Imelda Marcos.

Theatre in America has become more and more conservative, Cosson sighs. "I want to make theatre that speaks directly to our time and place. This is our purpose with The Civilians. We want to reveal something about the present, so we're not averse to twisting stories. We're political, yes, but with a small 'p', although we talk endlessly about the politics of what we're doing."

Why The Civilians? "It's old vaudeville slang to refer to people outside of the business," he replies. "Politicians use it in Washington DC, and models use it too. I like it because we have this neo-cabaret aesthetic. I hope we're in the old popular entertainment tradition, but also about the real world we all inhabit."

-- (I Am) Nobody's Lunch, Assembly, George Street (0131-226 2428), Tuesday until August 28, 3.15pm


Friday, August 11, 2006

Privates on parade (and off the rails)

by Kate Bassett

Presented by the new National Theatre of Scotland company in a vast disused drill hall, Black Watch is a top ticket at this year's Edinburgh Fringe. Gregory Burke's docudrama is a gritty portrait of the valiant Scots regiment, based on the playwright's interviews with former soldiers who were posted in Iraq and saw their own killed even as politicians back home announced the Black Watch's inglorious end.

What is unexpectedly dramatic and double-edged is that Burke incorporates the interview situation and its simmering tensions. It starts with comic misunderstanding as Burke's stage incarnation walks sheepishly through the pub door, sorely disappointing Brian Ferguson's Cammy and his shorn-headed mates who've been led to expect a bit of skirt. But their distrust of how he will portray them ultimately explodes in a hair-raising assault by the most unstable veteran. These scenes are intercut with flashbacks to Iraq: hanging around, joshing, quarreling, air attacks, getting letters from home.

The drill hall's echoing acoustic is problematic but the scale of the place is exhilaratingly epic, with a bare desert of concrete. The show gets away with its stylized, balletic-meets-bodyslamming battles (choreographed by Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly) because the acting is excellent and authentically mouthy. Director John Tiffany and designer Laura Hopkins also inject electrifyingly imaginative images. The pub's scarlet pool table suddenly rips open to reveal two squaddies crawling out into the air. The fatal explosion is also unforgettable, with bodies suddenly hanging from ropes 20 feet up, falling in slow motion for a seeming eternity.

Docudramas are everywhere this year. Unprotected is a study of a different kind of danger zone: a collage of re-enacted verbatim interviews with Liverpool prostitutes, outreach workers, politicians, cops and - most harrowingly - the mothers of two street walkers who were murdered. Staged with understated acumen by fast-rising Nina Raine, using a scattering of plastic chairs and projected cityscapes, this should not be missed.

Also at the Traverse, Pumpgirl is a three-hander of interwoven monologues dealing with a gang rape. Though writer Abbie Spallen is heavily influenced by Mark O'Rowe's Howie the Rookie, she's a talent to nurture with vivid powers of description, and Mike Bradwell's production is characteristically fine-tuned.

The Pleasance Theatre's star-studded comedy thriller, Marlon Brando's Corset, with Les Dennis (doing his best) and Mike McShane (desperately hyped up), proves to be complete garbage plot-wise. One presumes it's not intentionally ironic that the murder victim, a scriptwriter, keeps harping on about the dumb celebrity-led rubbish everyone churns out these days.

The Assembly Rooms' big play, Tim Fountain's adaptation of the 1960s movie Midnight Cowboy, following Charles Aitken's dull Texan hunk to the Big Apple and into male prostitution, is a string of clichés too. Considerably more interesting at the same venue is (I Am) Nobody's Lunch, devised by Manhattan experimentalists The Civilians. This satiric cabaret taps into contemporary America's fears and ignorance, using verbatim vox pop interviews that morph into peculiarly catchy songs.

Traverse (0131 228 1404); Pleasance (0131 556 6550); Assembly (0131 226 2428), at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, to 28 Aug


(I am) Nobody's Lunch

by Gerald Berkowitz

Members of this New York-based company interviewed a cross-section of Americans, asking where they got their information, what scared them and whether they thought Tom Cruise is gay. Their responses have been shaped into a fast-moving mix of spoken word and song whose polish and professionalism raise it far above usual fringe standards.

What the interviews suggest is that many Americans seem to make it their business not to be informed, out of fear of being forced then to think and have opinions, while those who do absorb information and misinformation are generally made unhappy by it. Curious, for example, about the public reaction to the story of Jessica Lynch, the soldier whose heroic rescue was later called into question - the interviewers ring up every J Lynch in the phone book and find that most have no view on the topic at all.

Much of the power of the piece comes from evocative juxtapositions - a Muslim student uncomfortable at being asked any questions by anyone and a Homeland Security staff member who knows how ill-prepared they actually are; or a conspiracy theorist who sounds nutty until he is put next to a real nutcase.

Occasional songs by Michael Friedman punctuate the hour and provide variety while being strong in themselves, notably I Wouldn’t Be Surprised, a wry collection of conspiracy theories and a mordent Brecht-Weill-flavoured finale.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

True Lies

What does a 40,000-year-old alien have to do with the war in Iraq? One theatre company thinks it has the answer.

by Brian Logan

How do we know what we know? Can we really be sure what's going on in Iraq, or whether or not a Hollywood star is gay? And is CNN any more to be trusted than the philosophies of a 40,000-year-old alien channelled by a friend of Steven Cosson's aunt? If anyone knows, Cosson does. Cosson is the 37-year-old artistic director of New York theatre group the Civilians, who for his new show [I Am] Nobody's Lunch has asked America the above questions, set the answers to song and sketch, and will be reporting back all this month in Edinburgh.

The show, as with the previous work of this Obie award-winning troupe, is verbatim theatre - but with a considerable twist. Cosson studied under the British director Les Waters, and cites Waters' famous company Joint Stock as the major influence on his work. From British theatre in general (Caryl Churchill sits on the Civilians' advisory board), he learned that "theatre was an important place to take on social and political questions".

The twist is all his own. The Civilians' take on docudrama is unique. They don't present the public's words as stark, stripped-back truth. And this isn't verbatim theatre as campaigning journalism, seeking to score polemical points. Instead, the Civilians co-mingle docudrama with cabaret, spinning their interviewees' responses into improbable, inquisitive song-and-soliloquy revues.

"The work of my peers in America has gone the way of a lot of other art disciplines and become more insular and specialised," says Cosson. "I wanted our work to speak in the language of show, so you didn't need a Master's degree in postmodern theatre to understand it."

It's important to him, too, that the Civilians stay responsive to the surprising human variety that their inquiries reveal. "When I first began interviewing 'ordinary people', I realised that the world was a more complex and interesting place than I'd thought. That's exactly what you want, I think, from a good piece of theatre.

"I think of our investigative pieces as a concentrated, strange and very quirky conversation between different people. The most important principle is that we can't have a foregone conclusion about what we're going to find out."

With 2003's Gone Missing, which visited London's Gate Theatre, the subject was loss - under the shadow of 9/11, the company interviewed New Yorkers about misplaced items, or memories, or loves. With Nobody's Lunch, the field of inquiry is truth: how we acquire and establish it in a sceptical, media-baffled world.

The show was created at the height of American sabre-rattling in the lead-up to the Iraq war. "We felt in a constant state of alarm," says Cosson. "So we had to ask ourselves: what is it about what's going on right now that we are truly curious about?" Looking around themselves, at an America sleepwalking into an unprovoked war, Cosson and company found the answer. "The most important question was: how is everybody making sense of all of this? How is it that people are believing this, or not believing it?" In a country whose media "had failed in its job to report reality and to serve as an engine of public discourse", the company challenged itself to find out "what America was thinking, what your neighbour was thinking, what the other people in the subway were thinking. And why they were thinking it."

The result is an intriguing, funny and plaintive docu-musical (with beautiful songs by resident composer Michael Friedman), which combines the wildly divergent perspectives of a staffer at the Department of Homeland Security, an alien, an Arab-American cabbie, and everyone listed in the phone book who shares the name of the captured then (supposedly) rescued US prisoner of war, Jessica Lynch. Watching the show, it's hard not to conclude that western society is an information free-for-all, and truth, on any subject more taxing than tabloid gossip, too exhausting to pursue.

Cosson says: "So many people would tell us, 'We can't know what's true about Iraq because we can't see it. There are so many conflicting stories. It's too hard to sort out what's going on. The only way to know what's true is to see it.' And that's problematic. If you're going to live in a big country, and your country is going to go to war on the other side of the world, then you have to believe that somebody can tell you what is going on."

Are the Civilians those somebodies? Perhaps not, says Cosson. "No, our little play is not going to give the answer." But what his investigations have taught him is that "you have to participate in the truth. The truth is something that is made between people. At the moment, we have given over our responsibility to seek the truth, to know it and believe it. And by doing so, we allow ourselves to be manipulated. We have to work together as a society, as a culture, to get it back".

· [I Am] Nobody's Lunch is at the Assembly Rooms (0131-226 2428) until August 28, then at the Soho Theatre, London W1, from September 6.


(I am) Nobody's Lunch

by Emma Drage

Was 9/11 a US government conspiracy? How do we know Hitler really existed? These are just a few of the questions posed in this quirky political satire. Composed from real life interview responses, the show combines verbatim theatre with musical cabaret to create a fast moving performance that is as funny as it is intellectually stimulating. It’s a very topical production with the issues raised about the reliability (or not) of government and media as relevant to contemporary Britain as they are in the US, where The Civilians hark from. Moving, thought provoking, and sometimes hilariously silly, this captivating production about reading between the lines will lead you to reassess the boundary between truth and lies.

Assembly @ George Street, 4 - 28 Aug (not 14), 3:15pm, prices vary, fpp 174


(I am) Nobody's Lunch

by Alan Chadwick

Young New York theatre company The Civilians has been bracketed alongside those other off-the-wall, left-field pranksters The Team. And it's easy to see why. Both play with convention to offer up a uniquely dynamic experience: in this case by mixing musical cabaret with verbatim theatre.

A satirical journey through the American heartland and its state of mind post-September 11, (I Am) Nobody's Lunch asks the question: How do we know what we know, and how do we know what we know is true? In order to find out, The Civilians set about conducting interviews on topics such as What Are You Afraid Of?, How Do We Know What We Know? and Is Tom Cruise Gay?

Interviewees include a foreign student, a soldier standing guard at Grand Central station and a policymaker at Homeland Security. Various people called Jessica Lynch are also interviewed to find their opinions about the rescue in Iraq of army supply clerk Jessica Lynch, who became the poster girl of the invasion. Domestic issues about relationships are also aired. The responses are then intercut with a series of musical numbers.

Simply by choosing what truths to explore and where to place them means The Civilians are inevitably caught up in spinning the spin. But the end result is a thought-provoking and funny alternative cabaret that delights in letting the cat out of the bag. If you go see it you'll know exactly what I mean.

Until Aug 28 (not Mon), Assembly @ George Street (V3), 3.15pm.

[Photo by Leslie Lyons of Brad Heberlee, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Daoud Heidami, and Jennifer R. Morris.]


Wednesday, August 9, 2006

American splendour

by By Guardian Unlimited / Murdo MacLeod's photo blog

A record number of New York acts are appearing at this year's Fringe. Gathered outside the Traverse Theatre are cast members from Cherry Pitz, Fahrenheit 451, LREI, Civilians, Acrobat, Two Men Talking, Clean Alternatives, Finer Noble Gases and The Team. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

The Civilians bring (I Am) Nobody's Lunch to the the Edinburgh festival from New York. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

[(I am) Nobody's Lunch cast members pictured in bottom photo are (l-r) Brandon Miller, Lexy Fridell, Caitlin Miller, Daoud Heidami, and Matt Dellapina.]


(I am) Nobody's Lunch

by Steve Cramer

The initial premise of this piece by New York company The Civilians is that if you send some actors out with tape recorders and record folks’ observations about how they know what the truth is, you can weave from the transcripts a night of strong political cabaret. Implausible on the face of it, but quite true, if you’ll allow me a word that the show proceeds to question.

In it, a succession of narrators, including a whole crowd of women called Jessica Lynch, but not the one who was rescued by a commando task force, or became the subject of a military photo opportunity, depending on how you look at it, during the Iraq war, are asked whether they believe they were told the whole truth about the story of their namesake. These, and many other answers are intriguing.

What emerges, after some moving and often very comical renditions of songs by Michael Friedman in Steve Cosson’s intriguing and powerful production, is a peculiar kind of optimism in the world, a reassuring moment where we realise that we are very far from alone in our uncertainty about the world. All grand narrative, from the bullshit churned about the Iraq war by our governments to our capacity to subscribe to the notion of love as an absolute value beyond history and circumstance are questioned. If the question of whether the postmodernist rejection of all grand narratives isn’t in fact the biggest grand narrative of all is not quite answered, there’s a huge amount to chew on here. Not least, the skilled and thoroughly accomplished performers, who actually contrive to bring Schrodinger’s cat into the action without the least disruption of the humour and pathos of the piece. A cracking night’s entertainment for anyone who’s ever loved or dabbled in empiricism.

Assembly Rooms, 226 2428, until 28 Aug (not 14), 3.15pm, £11-£12 (£10-£11).


(I am) Nobody's Lunch

by Andrew Burnet


GOVERNMENTS have been lying to their citizens since democracy was in diapers. But the Bush administration has been able to raise state mendacity to a whole new level, thanks to the erosion of public faith in anything and anyone, from the New York Times to the Homeland Security service.

That, broadly speaking, is the premise behind this compelling show from the Civilians, a New York-based company making its Edinburgh debut. Based on vox-pop interviews conducted in 2003 - the year of "shock and awe", weapons of mass destruction and the (some say) staged rescue of Private First Class Jessica Lynch - the show explores what modern Americans actually believe in the face of (dis)information overload.

Is the US army practising torture at Guantanamo Bay? Can the use of torture ever be justified? Is George W Bush actually a giant lizard? And is Tom Cruise really gay, or maybe just a little bit bisexual? Whose word do you trust anyway?

This is a kind of cabaret, with original songs by Michael Friedman interspersed with re-enactments of the interviews. The songs, arch, witty and beautifully performed, play on Americans' wistful, disenchanted love affair with their nation; while the interviews expose not only the failure of political faith, but also the freakish belief systems that spring up in its place. Most intriguing of all is the "channeler", the mouthpiece for an extra-terrestrial, who patiently explains that his race is "farming" humanity so it can feed on our fear.

Meanwhile, there's a suspicious bag that the cast can't get rid of - and it's mewing. Could this have something to do with Erwin Schroedinger's famous thought experiment, involving the life expectancy of a cat in a box?

The design is based around pink and grey - indeterminate, blanded-out colours that contrast tellingly with the reassuring certainties of red, white and blue. Steven Cosson, who scripted the show from the company's material, directs it with assurance. Above all, it's a piece that bristles with ideas. And although it poses many troubling questions, it does carry one clear message: there's nothing to be gained from compliance or complacency.

-Until 28 August.


Thursday, August 3, 2006

Edinburgh Festival 2006 - THIS WEEK’S TOP 20

We’re going to all sorts of shows, all day, every day, to select the best stuff for you. After much debate, this is our Top 20 for the week – across the board – in alphabetical order (first name first, folks).

Andrew Maxwell
He may be slight, but his joke book is fatter than your Auntie Jean. Maxwell’s insights give him enough material for two shows this year.

Andrew Weatherall
Celebrating We are . . . Electric’s first birthday in style with the legendary techno turntablist.

Black Watch
Greg Burke’s reflections on the experience of Blackwatch soldiers at Camp Dogwood in Iraq.

Doug Stanhope
Set to blaze a presidential trail of controversy all across Edinburgh, this embattled comic should be upsetting the tabloids round about now.

Dylan Moran
More fine fettered Irishmen; this time it’s a case of fast mouth rather than fast feet from Edinburgh’s funniest adopted son. Wry, raw. and always hilarious.

Finer Noble Gases
Adam Wrapp’s dark existential farce about the last days of drug addled rock musicians.

The Goodies
Taken out and dusted down from the comedy closet at the BBC and reminding us why gloriously silly, surreal humour ages very well.

The Gruffalo and Friends
The queen of the nursery bookshelf, Julia Donaldson, acts out her own books with help of husband Malcolm, and copious audience participation.

(I Am) Nobody's Lunch
New York's acclaimed Civilians present alternative cabaret based on verbatim conversations about the war in Iraq.

Kurt Wagner was among those who inspired the whole notion of and continues to amaze with this year’s Damaged.

Martha Wainwright
An all too brief pair of dates for Montreal’s finest chanteuse who plys a winning trade in stark, visceral folk pop.

Onysos the Wild
Subway commuters meet the ghost of Dionysus and explore their dark repressions in this French visual feast.

Particularly in the Heartland
The TEAM raise the ghost of Robert Kennedy in a Kansas farmyard. Wild political satire follows.

Penny Spubb's
It’s about time someone brought those bedfellows – comedy and seafood – together. Wix and Crilly do it with style, in Prawn Free

Reginald D Hunter
The sharpest suit in the comedy pack will be in full stride after taking a year out from his mandatory Perrier nominations. The show’s called Pride and Prejudice and Niggas, folks.

Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5
Henry Adam’s story of two Israeli soldiers in a fire fight who receive some unwelcome civilian visitors.

Robert Mapplethorpe
Visual Art
Creator of some truly iconic photographs of everything from lilies to penises. New York’s rebel with a lens enjoys a major retrospective.

Dublin’s James Devine is putting tap dancing back on the map not just as an art form but as a sport with his record breaking footwork.

Wil Hodgson
Former wrestler and lover of Care Bears completes his unofficial trilogy about life in Chippenham. Comedy rendered black (and pink).

ZooNation: Into The Hoods
Who’d have thought injecting the work of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods with a supply of hip hop stylings would be such a good idea?


Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Steve Cosson - ThreeWeeks Quick Quiz

by Clovis Sangrail

1. Why have you decided to come and perform at the Edinburgh Festival?
We, The Civilians, made this show--(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch--because we were dismayed at the political direction of our country (The USA). We thought that others might share our dismay. And we thought it would be fun to get together and share some mutual dismay. Plus all of our phones are tapped so we had to get out of the country to have a private conversation. Not that any of us has anything particularly confidential (or even interesting) to say it’s just a drag to have to avoid phrases like “dirty bomb” or “sleeper cell” or “let’s assassinate the President,” just because you don’t know who’s listening on the other end.

2. How are you preparing yourself for the Festival?
We’re all hoping to expatriate by marrying into some other nation. So each of us in the company is learning a new language and figuring out ways to be attractive to citizens of countries that have socialized medicine and less problematic foreign policy.

3. What are you most looking forward to about this year's Festival?
We hear that Edinburgh is home to an impressive diorama depicting Sawney Bean and his family of cannibals. We hear it is one of the most impressive cannibal dioramas in the world and it will be an honour and a delight to gaze up on it.

4. What are you most fearing about this year's Festival?

Real cannibals.

5. In 30 words (no more now) why should we come and see your show?
(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch is the only epistemological cabaret-theatre show in the entire world.

Steve Cosson is the Artistic Director of (I AM) NOBODY’S LUNCH
Assembly Rooms, 4 – 28 Aug, (not 14), 3:15pm (4.30pm), prices vary, fpp 174.


(I am) Nobody's Lunch

by Shona Craven

As the queue began to form for (I Am) Nobody's Lunch, I was across the road in an internet cafe, reading online comments about the recent foiled terrorist plot.

That is to say, the alleged terrorist plot - around 50% of comments posted on BBC News were from people who believed we were being stitched up. Or 'had for lunch', as US theatre group The Civilians would put it.

Based on interviews with American citizens (including cab drivers, government employees and several namesakes of the famous Private Jessica Lynch), (I Am) Nobody's Lunch is a lively, entertaining cabaret that asks how we know what we know. And even then, are we sure?

From national security to Tom Cruise's sexuality, contributors were grilled about their beliefs on a range of topics, and the company have woven their responses into an entertaining patchwork of doubt and confusion with a smartypants philosophical conclusion.

At times (I Am) Nobody's Lunch feels a little unfair on its contributors - it's easy for these smart young Americans to mock a rather vacuous beauty queen and an eccentric, dog-loving old lady. However, the show is elevated above verbatim-for-laughs by its glorious songs. The problems of propaganda and misinformation won't be solved by harmony-laden ditties, but they sure do make things seem an awful lot less depressing.

Until August 28, 3.15pm (1h), Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh.
Tel: 0131 226 2428.


(I Am) Nobody's Lunch

by Philip Fisher

Cabaret is big in New York, so it is good that Edinburgh gets to see a fine example of the genre. For some reason, while the UK gets the odd musical revue, this form has never really caught on. The Civilians have subversive tastes and their work is rather like the darkest satirical comedies that one might hear on Radio 4 or see on Channel 4, but with an American slant. As the 28 word subtitle indicates, they are interested in the quirky and have compiled this piece, a winner of a Fringe First in Week 1, from interviews with what they call 'actual persons', as well as an alien from the Pleiades. This is therefore a completely new style of theatre - Verbatim Cabaret. One wonders what some of their earnest contributors will have made of having their words sent up to a piano accompaniment from Andy Boroson. The subjects are the right ones for our time - love, fear and Tom Cruise's sexuality - is he gay? In a very sharp, almost breathless set, the five performers get laughs from public thoughts about these subjects, often cleverly juxtaposed as in the case of two students, one neurotically fearful, the other 'whatever'. Probably the most interesting is a 24-year-old woman who apparently has control over the system that decides whether overseas students get visas, and an Egyptian student. The exposé of a system gone to pot will not have endeared The Civilians to their Government but should give their audience a taste of the ever-popular 'shock and awe' at the behaviour of George Dubya and his team.