Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Civilians' Reality Theater Gets Religion: With 'This Beautiful City,' Church Meets Cabaret

By Nelson Pressley

"Let me tell you something," says an actor while playing a real-life pastor at the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs. "God made representative government. It's His idea. We talked about that in Samuel."

As the sermon goes on, the documentary-style show "This Beautiful City" tightens the link between church and politics. A New York troupe called the Civilians is rehearsing this production at Studio Theatre -- the same weekend that Barack Obama has resigned his longtime membership in his Chicago church -- and the company is using verbatim dialogue culled from its interviews in Colorado.

The Civilians' months of meticulous research also yielded another element: songs. "You want your freedom," sings the six-member cast, playing the choir at New Life. "You don't know freedom. It's not the ability to do what you want . . . "

This quirky blend of fact and melody has made the Civilians a bit of a downtown phenomenon in New York, and their profile is about to widen dramatically with "This Beautiful City." The show was a hit this spring at Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, and it's already booked for Los Angeles's Center Theatre Group and New York's Vineyard Theatre. Slimmed and revised since Louisville, it begins previews today at Studio.

"The point," says writer, director and company founder Steven Cosson, "is to throw ourselves into something totally different that we may not know much about."

"I tend to get pleasure out of putting my nose in everyone's business," Civilians composer-lyricist Michael Friedman says with a puckish grin.

This singular format was a happy accident that crossed their unexpectedly harmonious talents. Cosson, who grew up in Potomac, studied research-based theater as a graduate student at the University of California at San Diego. When he started the Civilians in 2001, he knew he wanted to draw from real life. ("The creative investigation of actual experience" is how the company's mission statement reads.) But he didn't know what shape he wanted the shows to take.

Cabaret emerged as an option when he teamed with Friedman, and that first year they created "Gone Missing," a piece about, um, things gone missing -- shoes, pets, Atlantis. A company of actors interviewed people on the theme; Cosson wrote and directed, and Friedman added songs. The show has toured widely and never really left the repertoire, popping up again last year in New York.

"In a sense, cabaret was the door that opened the possibility to create a different kind of theater," Cosson says. Subsequent projects have dealt with the fallibility of public information ("Nobody's Lunch"); the 1871 revolution in France ("Paris Commune," which used songs from the period); and even their own early incompetence in "Canard, Canard, Goose?" -- their no-go exposé of the mistreatment of fowl in the movie "Fly Away Home."

You'd think all that reality would tie a composer's hands, but Friedman doesn't see it that way. The Philadelphia native describes himself variously as a musical anthropologist and a magpie, raiding styles to see what fits.

"I'm a big throw-it-at-the-wall guy," says Friedman, whose intermittent "Beautiful City" songs sample a range from cowboy vaudeville to New Age gospel. "I'm not interested in a Michael Friedman style."

It's a coincidence, he says, that he is involved with another religion-themed musical: the just-opened "Saved" at Playwrights Horizons, a show based on the 2004 movie set in a Christian high school. Friedman thinks it's less fluky, though, that he and Cosson were in Colorado when Ted Haggard, founder and leader of the New Life Church, resigned on the eve of the 2006 election during his sex-and-drugs scandal. After all, evangelism and electoral politics had captured Cosson's imagination during the 2004 campaign, when President Bush's ties to the religious community suggested a subject Cosson wanted to explore.

So, in 2006, several members of the Civilians spent extended time in Colorado Springs, chosen for its reputation as "the Vatican of the evangelical right," as one resident puts it. (Another reason it apparently appealed was because competing ballot initiatives on same-sex couples -- a fight chronicled in the show -- were in the political wind; intolerance is a through-line of the kaleidoscopic piece.) By design, the voyage was culture shock.

"That world was terra incognita for me," Cosson says.

"I was definitely scared to go there," says company member Emily Ackerman, one of five singer-actors who conducted interviews with Cosson, Friedman and writer Jim Lewis. "I'm liberal, I live in liberal cities. And everything we hear is that they are hateful people, legislating against friends of mine."

Cosson and Friedman didn't know what they'd find; Friedman said the running joke was, "I hope there's a show there." And then the Haggard scandal broke.

"It was like a freight train ran into our show," Friedman recalls.

Ackerman, who spent seven months in "Gone Missing," thinks this is the most accurate Civilians show yet, with less of what she calls the troupe's usual stylistic "filtering" and more straightforward presentation. The people she plays in the show include a young Christian mother and a transsexual identified as TGirl Christian -- both of whom saw the show during a presentation in Colorado Springs, and who asked her to broker an introduction.

"It would be easy to send these people up," Ackerman says. "It would be mean, it wouldn't be good art and it wouldn't be interesting."

She adds: "If our show can get people talking who would never talk except on opposite sides of a picket line, that's good preachin'."

Cosson, who says sitting in a megachurch service with 3,000 congregants was "revelatory," figures that's an upside of the Civilians' method.

"Their world becomes linked to your world," he says. "We could not have created this show by commissioning a writer to write a play on this subject."

Friedman repeatedly champions the collaborative nature of what the company does, but notes that it can make the work hard to categorize. Paradoxically, that could box the Civilians into a self-created niche.

"We're not letting outside expectations define what we do," Friedman says. "Because then we're screwed."