The Civilians tackle the sad, weird
When theater director Steve Cosson founded his downtown New York theater company the Civilians, he wanted the group to engage with the real world. He wanted the Civilians to address everyday issues that audiences could relate to.Like abused geese.The idea for the company’s first production, 2001’s “Canard, Canard, Goose?” stemmed from the 1996 film “Fly Away Home,” which starred Anna Paquin as a young girl teaching a flock of lost baby geese to migrate. One company member had vacationed in Long Lake, N.Y., site of the “Fly Away Home” shoot, and came back with stories of abused and abandoned geese.So, in their effort to engage with the world, Cosson and his mates went to Long Lake to interview the local folks about the “Fly Away Home” experience. One motel owner told them a story of “classic Hollywood evil,” Cosson said.There was one problem: The very foundation of the story was bunk. “Fly Away Home” wasn’t even filmed in Long Lake. Still, the Civilians pressed on and created a musical about geese anyway, based on interviews with people who do geese stunts for films, and those who actually were associated with the filming of “Fly Away Home.” “Canard, Canard, Goose?” even included a musical number about the group’s ineptitude in pursuing a fabricated story.The Civilians’ second project was “Totally Uncool,” which would revolve around teenagers training the actors how to be cool in the teenage world. But after 9/11, the company decided to do something related more to the issues of sorrow and loss. Thus was born “Gone Missing,” a play about lost stuff. As with “Canard, Canard, Goose?” the latest piece, also part musical, is built around actual interviews.”We’d ask: ‘Is there something of yours that has gone missing that you want to talk about?'” said the 36-year-old Cosson. “And the only rules were, it had to be a thing – not a lost person – and it had to have disappeared mysteriously. Not a house that burned down.”The Civilians have struck a note. “Gone Missing,” which has played at Joe’s Pub and the Belt Theatre in New York, and the Gate in London, has earned excellent reviews, and comparisons to the radio program “This American Life” for its quirky but honest interaction with human existence.”The idea had something to do with living in New York after Sept. 11,” said Cosson of “Gone Missing,” which will go on tour after the USCAF. “As goofy as our work is, we are trying to engage with the present, make a piece that’s right for the particular time and place. After 9/11, speaking about simple, mundane objects could be a way into talking about loss and memory. The show came to be about how things are remembered through language.”Cosson traces his odd sense of the comedic to growing up in Maryland – “You have to have a sense of humor there,” he said – and a love for “The Carol Burnett Show” and “The Muppet Show.” All of which have become influences on the Civilians. “We’re like a ‘Muppet Show’ for the 21st century. But with real people and no muppets,” he said.If the subject of the Civilians’ plays don’t always turn out to be the most routine things in life, the sense of humor matches everyday reality in its combination of sorrow, bizarre and comedy.”If something’s a little bit sad, a little bit weird, a little bit funny,” Cosson said, “that’s our kind of stuff.”The Civilians’ “Gone Missing” shows tonight, Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 11 p.m.; Thursday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m.; and Saturday, Feb. 12, at 3 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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