Monday, June 25, 2007

Gone Missing

By Summer Banks

I’m an Etch a Sketch (but now I’m all shook up)/ I’m a piece of wax (but now the imprint’s lost) --from the song "Etch a Sketch" on what it’s like to be a person who’s lost his or her memory.

We’re all afraid of loosing things: our keys, our passports, our pets, our spouses, our minds. And so we try desperately to keep track of them, labeling hooks for our keys and drawers for our scissors, and leashing our pets and our spouses. But in spite of our best attempts, our labeling and leashing only cause us to loose them more quickly.

The same is true of the theater. As soon as we try to label or leash it, its value and spirit are lost. This is the philosophy on display in Gone Missing, the Civilians’ play with music, musical play, cabaret, musical experience, experimental small-cast musical. Created in 2003 from interviews conducted by company members, this 70-minute one-act has been massaged into songs, monologues and coordinated trios, making for a vividly entertaining night out.

Avoiding the perils of some non-fictional theater which makes the point of labeling itself "documentary" and treating its material as if it were in a museum, Gone Missing is composed of research distilled into organically connected impressions of its rather broad subject—lost items. The "items" range from jewelry to a shoe; pets to a stuffed sock-animal; war to the lost island of Atlantis. The material initially tries to stick to inanimate objects but as people begin to talk about boyfriends, sanity and religion , it quickly becomes clear that most of our feelings of loss are not really about the items themselves.

Structurally, the play follows an emotional arc through a range of compelling musings on loss and brief interludes with fascinating characters: a French lesbian, a pet psychic, and a brusque technician who works with disposeaphobics™. Don’t expect much of a plot since harnessing this material to a story line would make it seem much less profound and fresh than it actually is. Like the individually flash frozen portions at Trader Joes, the monologues, interwoven speeches and musical numbers each tell their own story, encapsulating a flavor that melds remarkably well with the whole. As this is an organic piece of work, it has spots that are not as polished as the pretty, waxed, and yet flavorless Red Delicious apples sold along Broadway, but that is part of its charm.

The songs are catchy, varying stylistically from standard musical theater to German lieder. They are performed with panache with the small band at the side of the stage creating an intimate jazz club ambiance that's remarkable given the size of the space. Stand out numbers include "Etch a Sketch," "Lost Horizon" and the titular "Gone Missing" which is still stuck in my head.

From the accuracy and charm with which the ensemble plays off the rhythms of the piece it's obvious that they are familiar with the material and one another. The set is basically non-existent and the gray-suit uniforms that serve as costumes evoke Manhattan’s financial district and highlight one of Gone Missing's most affecting monologues by a security guard at the World Trade Center who lost his Palm Pilot. He relates how he was directed to secure the baseball field for the secret service as the towers were coming down. Like many of the other recollections, this story succeeds in resonating with themes much deeper than materialistic loss.

It is the connection to universal ideals that makes Gone Missing feel more real than most naturalistic plays. It is also why any attempt to label it falls short of encapsulating its nature. This is a philosophical play about lost shoes and also a cabaret with love songs. Ultimately it’s just theater, blissfully free from the restrictions of definition.