Stories with head-on impact

by Nobuko Tanaka

Compared to “Fosse,” a quintessential big Broadway production, “CVR” is somewhere close to the other end of the dramatic spectrum. It’s certainly a significant event in the contemporary drama scene.

Where the one is all about entertainment; the other is a remarkable (though unique is an overused word, it may be appropriate here) theater experience delivered in one intense, content-packed, 75-minute act. The tension on stage spills over into every seat in the cozy old barrack-style Suzunari Theater in Shimokitazawa. It’s as if the whole place has become an airplane, with everyone present on board; the audience become powerless passengers; the fates of all played out on stage, which doubles as the cockpit.

Which is precisely the desired effect. CVR is the international code for “cockpit voice recorder,” and “CVR” re-creates six actual airplane disasters from the records on their CVRs. Like many of the best ideas it is a simple one, which premiered in the fall of 1999 at the 50-seat off-off-Broadway Collective: Unconscious theater on New York’s Lower East Side. A stronghold of young, promising American dramatists and artists, Collective: Unconscious is a company focused on experimenting with ideas and searching out new possibilities for the performing arts.

“CVR” sprang from a conversation early in 1999 among company members Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory. They happened on the idea of documentary drama, Daniels said at a post-performance talk, when they were “talking about the media control over fact/news.” They then set about exploring ways of representing onstage a story drawn solely from fact. What they ended up with was this non-dramatized, documentary-style drama, based entirely on CVR transcripts.

As far as staging goes, it could hardly be simpler: There is a cockpit in the middle of the stage, and the actors/actress reproduce the six case situations faithfully. In a post-performance talk, Daniels, one of the co-directors, said they had tried to present the facts as simply as possible, excluding the melodramatic surplus direction typical of Hollywood movies of similar disaster situations.

Nonetheless, the sound system was astonishing in its realistic reproduction of the sounds inside an airplane and its cockpit. When the plane crashes the sound explodes, the lights go off, then there’s silence. At these moments, the audience is left in no doubt that disaster has happened — and that life has ended.

Dramatist Yoji Sakate, a founder of the Tokyo-based Rinkogun (Phosphorescence Group) theater group, has been interested in “factitious” theater for a long time. After seeing a production of “CVR” in Minneapolis, Minn., a year ago, he decided to stage it in Japan in collaboration with its American creators. So, here we have three American directors, a Japanese director, Japanese crew and Japanese actors and actresses in a triumphant collaboration — so good that it transcends the self-consciousness and artificiality that often mars foreign drama played by Japanese.

One big reason for this success is that it tackles a universal situation anyone can imagine — and which most airplane passengers probably do imagine at least once during a flight. Even so, the huge impact of this simple drama exceeds all expectations, gripping the audience as though this life-and-death drama were really happening to them — in the process, questioning “reality” itself.

In doing so, it also points to great possibilities for this (ironically) fact-based method of fueling the imagination. “CVR” opens the audience to a huge range of issues — not least concerning human error and our different responses to crisis — precisely because (as they say), “fact is stranger than fiction.”