Sunday, August 13, 2006

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