Friday, September 15, 2006

'Gone Missing' offers humor, heartache

by Judith Egerton

You can lose your cool, your keys, a single size-6 Gucci pump. You can lose your cat, your gold teeth or even your mind.

Why are we attached to certain objects? What makes the loss of a treasured heirloom linger in the memory? And conversely, what would life be like if we lost the ability to remember our favorite things -- and the people and experiences they evoke?

With sanguine humor and original songs and music, The Civilians of New York City go looking for answers in "Gone Missing," a 90-minute show now playing in the snug Victor Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

The Civilians, led by Steven Cosson, created the theater piece after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Intrigued by thoughts concerning loss and memory, the company interviewed fellow New Yorkers to collect personal accounts of lost items. From those stories, they constructed a series of monologues that they tell with an astounding array of accents reflecting the city's diversity.

Wearing suits and ties of muted colors, the six Civilians perform individually and as an ensemble. They are as polished on stage alone as they are as whole.

In the small, 150-seat Victor Jory, the actors (Emily Ackerman, Matthew Maher, Jennifer R. Morris, Stephen Plunkett, Robbie Collier Sublett and Alison Weller) speak directly to the audience as they tell about losing items, such as a favorite scarf, and more serious things, such as a job, a husband and an inheritance.

One character imagines that a beautiful scarf she left in a cab is now "balled up" in someone's SUV with a cat sitting on it -- no longer hers and no longer appreciated. Three women speak of feeling heartsick over losing rings that symbolize relationships, and the men join together in a rousing and funny "La Bodega" number.

Michael Friedman's songs include ballads, such as "The Only Thing Missing Is You" by Ackerman, and a tough-love tune, "I Gave It Away," about getting rid of an ex's possessions after a breakup. The ensemble was accompanied by able music director John D. Zehnder, who breezily moved through the show's eight songs.

Morris, a former Actors Theatre intern, reveals a winning versatility in her ability to morph from character to character. Particularly amusing was her tough-talking Queens native whose job -- and mission -- was to persuade obsessive-compulsives to let go of found objects.

Although Plato and Freud are mentioned, the production doesn't dig too deep, and that's a shame. It's as if "Gone Missing" is just missing something that would help us more fully understand the nature of loss.

Understandably, The Civilians chose not to focus their piece on the human losses suffered on Sept. 11, 2001, yet they haunt the show. Perhaps, as we learn from a heartbroken character in "Gone Missing," some losses are so painful that even words go missing.


Critic's Choice: Top Five Plays

by Kieron Quirke

Our reviewers select London's best plays, from Nina Rain's comedy Rabbit, to a clever cabaret from New York, and Brixton Stories' thoughtful snapshot of south-west London life...

Trafalgar Studios, SW1
Just when you thought no more fun could be had from the sex lives of middle class young adults, a play proves again that they are an inexhaustible mine of entertainment. Nina Raine's self-directed comedy has its clunks and dithers, but a knack for truth and dialogue plus some fine performances compensate for the naive moments. Birthday girl Bella (Charlotte Randle) and her chums, including seething ex boyfriend, Richard (Adam James), talk like your friends, but with twice as much eloquence and four times as much emotional honesty. Until 7 October. (0870 060 6632). Kieron Quirke

(I Am) Nobody's Lunch
Soho, W1
Our confused relationship with certainty is the theme of this clever, fun and, in all, rather brilliant cabaret from New York troupe The Civilians. It's based on interviews with ordinary Americans, covering two key modern issues: the war on terror and the sexuality of Tom Cruise. This isn't so much the documentary theatre as a network of lateral thoughts about the way human weakness affects our beliefs and loyalties, with Michael Friedman's excellent songs conjuring an atmosphere of general confusion. Great stuff. Until 23 September (0870 429 6883). Kieron Quirke

Brixton Stories
Lyric Studio, W6
One of the first lines in Biyi Bandele's uplifting look at south-west London life announces that Ossie Jones, immigration lawyer and father to Nehushta, is dead. In the subsequent 75 minutes, however, he is gloriously alive. He and his daughter wander their home streets, as the four-strong cast winningly introduce us to a kaleidoscope of local colour. Perfect fairy-ish Stories for the darkening nights ahead. (08700 500 511). Until 23 September. Fiona Mountford

The Madras House
Orange Tree, Richmond
There are strange, thematic echoes of Ibsen and premonitions of Lorca in Harley Granville Barker's critique of Edwardian society and its exploitation of women. The vital link in the play's episodic scheme is Timothy Watson's bleakly becalmed Philip Madras, a young man with a restless wife, eager to be shot of two family firms. His father, Constantine (Richard Durden) emerges as the embodiment of the sexual hypocrisy, cruelty and marital subterfuge that his son avoids. Granville Barker lacks Shaw's flair for provocation and polemic, yet his dark, Edwardian worldpicture remains worth viewing. (020 8940 3633). Until 14 October. Nicholas de Jongh

Caucasian Chalk Circle
The Scoop, SE1
Good things do come for free. The Steam Industry's pacy, bold and determinedly accessible revival of Brecht's epic masterpiece is playing for any passer-by outside City Hall. The politicians should be thankful. It isn't pure Brecht - director Phil Wilmott abandons a great deal of the playwright's ideology. But it is a wonderful whirlwind of action, and the energy of the cast and the appeal of a good myth simply told see it through. In rep until 17 September. Kieron Quirke


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Finding the truth is fantastic fun

by Kieron Quirke

"What is truth?" pondered Pontius Pilate, and he had a fair point. Our confused relationship with certainty is the theme of this quirkily clever, edifyingly fun and, in all, rather brilliant collage of cabaret from New York troupe The Civilians.

The piece is based on interviews with a selection of the company's fellow Americans, covering two key modern issues: the war on terror and the sexuality of Tom Cruise. How have these people gone about processing the mass of information presented to them by the media, friends and loved ones into something approaching knowledge?

The primary concern in all of this is the modern dilemma of how much we trust our governments. There are a few scenes that are directly on point - a young government worker tells how the failure of a foreign-student visa scheme was hushed up; a member of the National Guard explains why he doesn't bother loading his gun.

But mostly this isn't so much the politically charged, confessional documentary theatre we are used to as a network of lateral thoughts about the way human weakness affects our beliefs and loyalties.

Schrödinger's cat mewing from a deserted, suspicious bag that no one will open represents the clouding of our curiosity by fear. Romantic love and the unquestioning trust it engenders becomes a metaphor for patriotism.

Michael Friedman's excellent songs conjure atmospheres of confusion in support of these ideas. A tango-like number (Lady Beware), danced to by spies and translated by a scared interpreter, captures that uncertain feeling that the person doing the warning is the one of whom you should be scared.

The final minutes are perhaps less enthralling than the first hour, and there is a song at the end that provides more explanation than we need. But really, this is great stuff.

Photo Credit: Lateral thinking: The Civilians provide a brilliant collage of cabaret
[Photo by Leslie Lyons of (l-r) Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Daoud Heidami, Jennifer R. Morris, Brad Heberlee, and Caitlin Miller.]


Monday, September 11, 2006

The Trouble With Asian Men/(I am) Nobody's Lunch

Sam Marlowe at Soho, W1

So, an actor asks the audience, what is the trouble with Asian men? “Their mothers,” comes one response. “Lack of a six-pack,” comes another. “They run away at the first sign of trouble,” remarks a woman with quiet seriousness. These and other issues are discussed in this hour-long verbatim piece, created for the Asian company Tamasha by Kristine Landon-Smith, Sudha Bhuchar and Louise Wallinger and first seen in November. A quartet of actors use recorded interviews, which are played into their earpieces and re-spoken to us complete with the vocal idiosyncrasies of the original speaker.

The method has limitations. The non-stop playing of the recording into the actors’ ears means that they cannot pause to accommodate an audience response. Sometimes their faces go blank with concentration; and Landon- Smith’s production is somewhat static. But there’s an undeniable authenticity about the conversations — even if they yield few fresh insights.

We hear about sexism and homophobia, of dictatorial husbands, inflexible fathers and mothers. There are accounts of lives divided between a traditional role at home and a modern Western one outside it. There is a touchingly comic tale of a Sikh who realises he wears a turban for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, and bids farewell to it, and to the hair he has never before cut, at Vidal Sassoon.

The New York cabaret company the Civilians also use a verbatim approach, albeit a more fluid one. (I am) Nobody’s Lunch, winner of a 2006 Edinburgh Fringe First, wittily considers the impossibility of certainty in a world stuffed with lies. Snappy songs and scenes drawn from interviews with various fearful citizens muse on the unknowable realities behind news headlines, tabloid gossip and political spin, underscored by the mewing of Schrödinger’s Cat, which may or may not be imprisoned in a suspect package abandoned on the stage. The show doesn’t have the intensity of the company’s last UK outing, the post-9/11 Gone Missing, but it’s an inventive and provocative exploration of the 21st-century condition.

Box office: 0870 4296883


Friday, September 1, 2006

Theater Review - Gone Missing

by Sherry Deatrick

Typically, theatrical works take place in the here and now. In “Gone Missing,” characters engage the audience by talking about their past experiences with lost objects. Amazingly, this technique, which flies in the face of traditional theater, doesn’t put the audience to sleep.

More than just stories about lost items, “Gone Missing” explores the loss of human contact. Through a series of intertwined reminiscences, it seems as though we’re sitting in a coffee shop chatting with each character. The topnotch cast deftly switches from one role to another, as they take turns recounting tales of lost objects. At times, a character tries to talk about the loss of husband, a job or a mind, but the others interrupt such abstract talk. By focusing on the mundane, the cast explores the definition of a person, and our place in the universe.

Only through song does the play deal with lost relationships and other painful topics, as in “I Gave It Away,” an aggressive tune about gleefully shedding a rotten ex’s possessions while robbing him of his power. (Admit it, you’ve done it.) Music is the sleight of hand that allows the mind to confront these complex issues.

The monologues were gleaned from interviews The Civilians conducted with ordinary New Yorkers following 9/11, and they’re woven into a crazy human quilt by Steve Cosson, the Civilians’ founder. The New York-based troupe works as a team to create original projects based on real life using both documentary and artistic styles. It’s a bit like David Greenberger’s “Duplex Planet,” a comic book series based on interviews with nursing home residents.

Comedy and tragedy share the stage equally, as the characters run the gamut from a hard-bitten New York cop (Stephen Plunkett) who delights in the gory details of his DOA investigations, to a bitter elderly woman (Emily Ackerman) who warns that you can’t trust anybody, as she describes caretakers who steal her possessions, including a crocheted blanket she made. Ackerman injects humor into pathos when she comments on Afghan design, saying “not one of those ones with circles ... I hate those.” Jennifer R. Morris flawlessly portrays an expert who specializes in teaching obsessive collectors to throw away their junk.

Through the hilarious radio interview about the lost continent of Atlantis with an eminent author (interspersed throughout the play by different actors), we learn that “nostalgia” is a neologism from the Greek words for “returning home” and “pain,” the work’s central theme. In the crescendo, lights descend around the actors as they deliver the philosophical song “Stars,” which posits that we may not exist but as a memory.

In the dramatic and stunning conclusion, the actors shed their suit jackets and, one by one, hang them on an unseen hook as they exit the stage, leaving them suspended in mid-air. It’s a moving tribute to the white-collar workers who were vaporized in the attack on the World Trade Center.