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Charlie Victor Romeo review by Avi Glickstein
October 6, 2012

For an already nervous flier, taking in a matinee of Charlie Victor Romeo may not have seemed like the best idea. Created in 1999 from the cockpit voice recorder transcripts of various in-flight emergencies, the show promises its audience an unflinching look at the way things can suddenly go very wrong for an aircraft and what – if anything – pilots can do in those situations. Good idea or no (talk to me after my next flight), seeing CVR is a choice I would make again in a second. It’s one of the most tense and compelling 85 minutes of theater I’ve seen.

It goes without saying that we’ve spent a good part of the decade-plus since 1999 thinking about airplane cockpits – three in particular. And the experience of flying has certainly changed as a result. So how does a post-9/11 mentality color a pre-9/11 show about airplane disasters? For the most part, it doesn’t. This is really a period piece, which, despite its dark subject matter, allows for some detached nostalgia about the “difference between then and now.”  The phrase “armored flight deck,” for instance, kept coming to mind while watching flight attendants and pilots repeatedly move freely between cabin and cockpit. Strange to see and remember, but ultimately just another period detail.

CVR really begins before it begins. As the audience sits waiting, much like passengers waiting for a plane to board, recordings of air traffic communications play and an empty cockpit sits waiting for its ill-fated crew. There is already a palpable tension, the kind people who have had pre-boarding premonitions presumably feel. The kind that says, “Don’t get on that plane.” But we do.

We’re greeted by the usual emergency preparedness routine from two flight attendants (the circumstances we know are coming give it a sad air of futility). Following are six incidents, each concentrating on a different flight and a different problem the crews of those flights face. Prior to each incident, supertitles show the flight information, location, and root cause of the accident. The only piece of information missing is the number of casualties and survivors, if any. That number is cleverly and impactfully saved for a post-segment slide.

Lest you think there’s no artistry at work in staging something as inherently dramatic as transcripts of in-flight accidents, there is some wonderful dramaturgy here. The selection and placement of the flights mess with the audience’s expectations – and hopes – in a way that makes watching the performance even more moving and engaging. Some segments begin mid-problem, some problems we’re witness to; some resolve sharply while others are drawn out. All of them are painful in some way.

While these are dramatizations of very large-scale events, perhaps the smaller details and gestures are the most affecting and horrifying. One segment details a flight in which the crew had no instrument readouts because the ground crew had accidentally taped over the sensors while cleaning the plane. Among the chaos we watch in the cockpit, the image of a small piece of tape somewhere on the outside of the plane was impossible to shake. Throughout, pilots constantly flip through a large, red airplane manual, looking for something, anything that will help. And, in one moment, a crew member brings his hand to his ear to press his headphone closer, and his wedding ring flickers in the light – a reminder of what lies beyond that cockpit and beyond that aircraft.

The dominant feeling throughout watching CVR – oddly comforting and horrifying at the same time – is one of helplessness. Being with the pilots and other crew as they try desperately to pull out of their situations (some more calmly than others) is infinitely better than being kept in the dark. You know what’s happening. You can “see the road.” But then you remember that, in these situations, you are not there with them. You are behind that door, with no idea what may come.

The actors in the ensemble, both onstage and heard only through radio communication, all provide an admirable depth to characters known only through transcripts that impart very few personal details. Even though many of them only have names like “Pilot” or “1st Officer,” they are imbued with personalities through sharp and specific vocal and physical choices. Even over the radio, a call for repeated clarification becomes genuinely affecting. And, in Bill Ballou and Cecile Boucher’s claustrophobic cockpit, Jamie Mereness’s sound design becomes a character all its own. The deep hum of the engine or tweaking of the flaps extending seems to be almost in dialogue with the crew as much as they are in dialogue with each other and people on the ground.

Somehow, it’s possible to emerge from the theater after all of this and not vow to avoid air travel entirely. What makes this possible is the realization that these are not incidents concerning airplanes, but rather, incidents concerning an airplane. They are aberrations, six particular airplanes in six particular circumstances. So much so that the fact that they happened once makes one feel – however illogically – that they are unlikely to happen again. If CVR is trying to demonstrate anything about the operation of aircrafts in general, it’s this. Events of the sort seen here are truly rare and out of the ordinary. That doesn’t mean they’re not still terrifying, a duality that CVR captures beautifully. “There’s no procedure for this,” one pilot admits. Ultimately, we can’t plan for everything, but we sure hope someone is out there trying.