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Irving Gregory, Ben Chinn in Charlie Victor Romeo
Photo © Bob Berger
Charlie Victor Romeo (airspeak for "Cockpit Voice Recorder") is a dramatization of verbatim "black box" transmissions retrieved from six plane crashes. As theater, it's riveting, terrifying, and depressing as hell; if your eyes don't water during this show, you ought to check your pulse. The directing, acting, and design are beyond reproach. Who can fault a production for faithfully delivering on what it has set out to do, even if that mission might seem morbid or pointless to some people?

Currently being revived at P.S. 122 following an acclaimed production that debuted before 9/11, CVR is much more than an exercise in snuff voyeurism. It uses the same dramatic material that's inspired theater from its beginnings. During one of the flights, a plane withstands major system failures for nearly half an hour; another flight is felled by a flock of Canadian geese in a matter of seconds. This illustrates nature's frightening power and man's relative frailty with the force of Greek drama.

Collective: Unconscious Theater Company explores the docudrama form to new heights and depths here. When the altimeter and speedometer fail during one segment, a pilot shouts, "It's all fictitious." He's referring to the equipment readings but the audience might wish that the exclamation could be taken as some sort of reassurance about the piece as a whole. Blurring the lines between life and fiction has been a perennial pastime of avant-garde theater but this production raises the stakes to a gut-wrenching level. Philosophers and anthropologists can decide whether the recent surge of theatrical docudramas is a response to the saturation of reality programming on the airwaves and/or a reaction toward uncertain times; at any rate, Charlie Victor Romeo leaves little room for the average viewer to intellectualize.

The program notes clarify some of the airline jargon but theatergoers only need a basic literacy in body language to follow the dialogue from moment to moment. While Charlie Victor Romeo may attract some people of the sort that download videos of torture and beheading, there is so much sober attention to detail in the piece that it feels more like a memorial to those who died.

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