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What Do You Say When the Plane Crashes? How "Charlie Victor Romeo" stages the transcripts of airline emergencies

By RAVEN SNOOK

While most documentary theatre (The Laramie Project, The Exonerated, etc.) is based on after-the-fact interviews with survivors or witnesses, the characters in Charlie Victor Romeo don't have the benefit of hindsight. This drama---which consists of six reenactments of black box transcripts from airplanes that crashed---features flight crews in the midst of a crisis, trying to save their passengers and themselves.

Originally presented by Collective: Unconscious in 1999, CVR, takes care not to exploit the events it recreates. There are no overwrought scenes of doomed passengers screaming or fleeing fiery wreckage. Instead, the actors reenact what happened on those fateful flights verbatim, without histrionics but with the technical terminology intact. At times, it's like listening to an opera in another language---you can't understand the words but the emotions are palpable.

"There's this bait and switch with CVR," says co-creator Bob Berger. "People think it's going to be Die Hard 2. It is an incredible psychological drama, but there's no payoff in terms of fireballs. It's a visceral experience." (Jamie Mereness' thrilling sound design also adds to the intensity and verisimilitude.)

CVR came out of the once-thriving Lower East Side stage scene at the now-shuttered Collective: Unconscious on Ludlow Street. In August of 1999, Collective members Berger and Irving Gregory were discussing the then relatively new phenomenon of reality TV and its cultural influence. As an example, Berger showed Gregory a book of cockpit transcripts from flight incidents, and after reading a few they realized they were onto something. "I had been a cameraman for CNN and was involved in the coverage of TWA Flight 800, which really affected me," remembers Berger. "As we were reading the transcripts I said, 'This could make a really great play.' During the time it took us to walk from Shakespeare & Co. on Broadway to the theatre, we'd come up with the whole thing. We even mapped it out on a cocktail napkin." The duo teamed up with frequent collaborator Pat Daniels---who both directs and appears in the current CVR revival at 3LD Art & Technology Center---and by October of that year, the show had taken off.

The production has enjoyed quite a wild ride over the past 13 years, including numerous regional, international, and NYC runs, racking up Drama Desk and NYC Fringe Festival awards. (It was even taped by the Pentagon for pilot training.) And just this past summer, the creators shot the show in stereoscopic 3D at 3LD and are currently submitting the indie feature to various film festivals.

It will be interesting to see whether watching a movie version of CVR will be as intense as seeing it on stage---especially considering that 3LD is so close to the World Trade Center. Berger and his associates are quick to point out that none of the incidents featured in CVR were caused by terrorist acts, but from the questions heard at the post-show talkback, it's clear that 9/11 crosses audience members' minds.

The creators read hundreds of transcripts before settling on these particular incidents. "We were looking for episodes that were interesting dramatically and that brought up issues of communication and teamwork," says Berger. They also wanted the sequences to be relatable. "While most of us have never piloted a plane, we've all driven white-knuckle in a snowstorm or had to collaborate with other people to solve a problem," says Berger.

Not every crash has a completely tragic outcome, which keeps the show from becoming a constant barrage of horror. "There are intense scenes and mellow ones, long ones and short ones," adds Daniels. "But all of them are juicy for the actors. They really get to tap into their humanity. We're constantly jerking the audience around---they don't know how long it will be until something goes wrong."

Over the years, the creators have been very protective of CVR: They've only allowed two other theatre companies to mount the show without their direct involvement, one in Japan, the other at the CUNY Aviation Institute at York College in Queens. "We don't let anybody else do it because we've never been able to walk away from it ourselves," explains Berger. The key to the show's success is not the script, he adds; it's this team's straightforward approach. "This content demands respect," says Daniels.  "If it wasn't for that, the play wouldn't be as long-lived and interesting as it is."

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Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.

Photo by Bob Berger