Crash arts

Charlie Victor Romeo tells true tales of air emergency
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  May 25, 2006


Charlie Victor Romeo

Disaster junkies will flip out at the chance to see five plane crashes and one narrowly averted one played out in Charlie Victor Romeo, which has been imported by the American Repertory Theatre and World Music/CRASHarts to Zero Arrow Theatre (through May 28). The rest of us might find more enjoyable ways to spend an evening than waiting for calamity to strike one plane after another and listening to Jamie Mereness’s impressively designed explosions.

The scripts are derived directly from transcriptions of cockpit recordings, and the ensemble — Paul Bargetto, Noel Dineen, Nora Woolley, Sam Zuckerman, Debbie Troche, and directors Bob Berger and Patrick Daniels — render them convincingly. With few exceptions, you can’t fault the characterizations, pared-down as they are, or the actors’ skill at shaping themselves around the banal, jargon-laden language so that it sounds natural and not stylized. Dineen, who plays the profane, jovial first officer in the opening scene, the pilot in the second, and, in the last, an off-duty pilot among the passengers who comes into the cockpit to offer assistance, proves especially adept with the text. It’s the text itself that needs shaping. More than a dozen people collaborated to develop the piece, but because the company wanted to preserve the integrity of the cockpit exchanges, the dialogue feels untouched by human hands. Even in documentary film, someone edits the footage of real people, but in this staged docudrama, it feels as if nothing had intervened between the transcripts and the spoken word, so the dialogue is undramatic and uninteresting.

What provides the drama is the audience’s experience of living through these air disasters along with the pilots who are struggling to maneuver their vehicles to the ground against increasingly difficult odds. And it’s useless to deny that on the most basic level of suspense and dread, these half-dozen sketches are effective. But what could we possibly take from such a performance beyond an unpleasant ride? We do learn that — to judge from their behavior in the course of these incidents — most pilots are courageous, resourceful, dedicated, and unstinting, but otherwise all we discover is what we’ve already guessed: crashes are noisy and frightening and chaotic. And because the language is so restricted and the meaning of the play is so narrow, after the first scene (the only story with a happy ending), the drama takes on a certain predictability, even though the situations vary. In one episode, geese fly into the engines; in another, the maintenance crew’s failure to remove tape from one of the static ports throws every instrument at the pilots’ service out of control; in a third, a ruptured bulkhead compromises the operation of the plane. But each scenario proceeds inevitably toward noise, terror, and chaos. And though all of them are unsettling, only the first scene and occasional moments in the subsequent ones are vivid and dynamic. Charlie Victor Romeo is a paradox — a series of dull thrills.

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