REAL TERROR IN THE AIR AND IN THE THEATER
If this play doesn’t make you want to travel by train instead of by air, nothing will. Here’s a performance project (credited to creators Bob Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Irving Gregory) that consists of a cast of actors performing the transcripts of recordings retrieved from the Black Boxes found in the rubble of airplane crashes. And, good lord, the vignettes make for some of the most powerful, harrowing, and downright emotionally involving theatrical material you can imagine.
Admittedly, when one is dealing with this theme, just reading the transcripts straight might be suspenseful enough – but adding the distancing hyper-reality of dramatic performance elevates the desperate interactions to the level of epic drama. It is, of course, a little bit awkward to impose theatrical standards on transcripts of real life tragedy, but, at the same time, what drama could be more elemental and universal than the true depiction of the battle for life and death, waged until the final moments?
When we first arrive at the sleek, tilted, white tiled corridor that marks the entrance to the 3 Legged Dog (3LD) space, our impression is that we’re actually waiting for a flight. After we’re seated by a pair of perfectly lovely flight attendants, they give an impeccable “pre-flight” presentation (please note, none of the instructions the stews dole out would, in fact, help you in the event of an actual crash), we momentarily suspect that we’re in for a campy flight.
However, nothing could be farther from the truth as the show’s performers instead present a series of tales encompassing struggle, terror, and, yes, redemption, which are rendered with vitality, realism, and an underlying respect for the real life figures. It is this respect that absolutely undercuts any attempt to trivialize or make fun of the situations on stage. Although each vignette runs only about 10 minutes, it is difficult to describe the edge-of-the seat tension engendered from merely watching these powerfully enacted episodes.
Staged on Bill Ballouand and Cecile Boucher’s disturbingly realistic cockpit set, the crash vignettes fall into distinct dramatic genres. During “American Airlines Flight 1572,” a cascading series of minor mishaps coalesce into one huge disaster, as the pilot (Patrick Daniels) reacts with increasing desperation. In this sketch, the first of the evening, the producers clearly strive to ease us gently into the concept – pilot heroes act like movie action heroes and ultimately save the plane. There’s also an undercurrent of Buddhist philosophy here: If even one of the minor incidents that led to the crash hadn’t occurred, everything would have been all right.
“Aeroperu Airlines Flight 603” plays like a whodunit, as the increasingly unhinged pilot (Patrick Daniels, again) and his shrewd co-pilot (Debbie Trioche) are confronted by a series of perplexing power failures, and struggle both to account for them and save the plane before their time runs out.
For those in the mood for bleak black comedy, we have “United States Air Force YUKLA 27,” in which a group of youthful, hot-dogging pilots are reduced to weeping and yelling as their plane hits a flock of geese. A saucy episode, “American Eagle Flight 4184,” features a smirking pair of pilots (Noel Dineen and Mick O’Brien), who flirt with a sultry flight attendant (Nora Wooley) while in a holding pattern in the icy skies over Chicago. The crash, however, when it occurs, has nothing to do with the flirting – and the moral implied by the incident is that the gentle, tender moments in life occur fleetingly and must be savored.
However, the majority of the incidents are by contrast powerful depictions of desperation, transitory hope, and the necessity to fight for your life until the very last second. The show’s climactic nail-biter, “United Airlines Flight 232,” presents a ferociously motivated pilot (Daniels, once more), who will not take the inevitable for an answer, and who insists on continuing to try to land his plane safely, in spite of failing hydraulics, dimwitted opposition from the flight control tower, and a damaged steering system that won’t allow the plane to turn left.
By the end of the show, the 8 plane crashes have been so realistically depicted that you may have to remind yourself that, while you’ve just seen these disasters in quick succession, the actual incidents were separated by years, and that flying is still the safest way to travel. (Please keep this in mind the next time you’re caught in turbulence coming into JFK.)
The ensemble are unnervingly convincing, artfully conveying not just the adrenaline-charged desperation to survive, but also the jovial bonhomie of the cockpit and the emotional masks that pilots must don when addressing the passengers in the midst of disaster. Jamie Mereness’ strikingly evocative sound design, which eerily conveys the rumbling rush of a jet’s engines, peppered by the horrific cascade of in-flight alarms, is essentially an unseen character (as well as a deadly tormentor). If you’re not covered with tense flop sweat at the end of this production then, well, you are not someone with even a modicum of aviophobia.
photos by Bob Berger
Charlie Victor Bravo
Collective: Unconscious at 3LD Theater
scheduled to end on October 20, 2012.
for tickets visit http://www.charlievictorromeo.com/