This most unusual, unsettling piece, Charlie Victor Romeo depicts the final moments heard on the CVR: Cockpit Voice Recorders known as the “black box” from airplane wreckage. Described as terrifying, riveting, spell-binding, mundane and boring as hell- Charlie Victor Romeo is all of the above and more. For me, it was actually good theater-admittedly, it pushes beyond the usual depictions of theater, but theater nonetheless. All six vignettes or “incidents” occur in a cockpit set up on stage, the cast members portray the crew and voices of air traffic controllers, and the stories that emerge come directly from the actual words on transcripts-including the “ums” and misspeaks. How does it work? Why is it so mesmerizing?
Of course, there are the necessary top-gun high caliber actors, able to sustain our attention and make us believe that they are actually having these horrendous experiences in flight right before our eyes. This exemplary ensemble of six actors including two women embodies the take charge world of pilots in command. We’ve all seen and heard them, we place our lives in their hands on each flight. This production provides a chilling portrayal of some selected moments, and shows the crew’s reaction and interaction under unspeakable duress, the physical and mental merge of stamina needed to fight faulty equipment, ice and impending doom, to what we know will be a bitter end. It’s chilling to watch.
On top of that is the ferocious sound and lighting needed to pull this off– kudos to sound designer Jamie Mereness, sound engineer Kevin Reilly, and lighting design by Derek Wright. Each scene begins with the all too familiar drone of the airplane engines. We get so used to it that we tune it out as white noise, until some unusual pop, or muffled explosion, then the sirens blare, and the disembodied voice from the control booth issues directives, everyone trying to be heard and understood, speaking in that crisp flight-speak, clear and direct with urgent undertones -“Affirmative! Affirmative! for “Yes, Yes,” then piercing alarms, and loud shouting warnings from the aircraft itself-it’s a sound designers dream, or nightmare, to balance the volume for best effect, which apparently worked better some nights than others. The gut wrenching screeches of the final crash defy description and must be experienced to be believed.
And finally there’s the script. The creators, Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels (two of the performers, and who also co-directed), and Irving Gregory, combed through hundreds of transcripts from voice recorders and selected these six for production, arranging their order as much as possible for theatrical value. In a talk-back session, the writers described their research efforts and their ultimate sense of accomplishment when they get feedback from pilots and anyone familiar with the crashes, even some survivors. Described in the program as “live theatrical documentary,” the piece contains taut psychological drama that unfolds as the characters are forced to make immediate, on the spot decisions in the face of death. According to the writers, the transcript shows the course of action amidst power struggles, self-doubt, tension, unspoken fear, and wavering trust, invoking moments reminiscent of Greek drama. Their ultimate payoff is that all of this is real-which excites them more than a well crafted script ever could.
I admit that I was riveted. And yes, during long stretches of equipment failure and intense technological struggles, I spaced out and went into “auto-pilot “– a saying derived directly from flight jargon– but that’s all a part of life. We all go on auto-pilot when everyday life is routine, predictable, and boring as hell. We zone out, as a pair of pilots seem to do in one humorous sequence, then in a split second, something out of the ordinary can happen to snap us into what could be a fight for our lives. Charlie Victor Romeo presents the crucial moments of six fateful flights. It’s not for the squeamish, but it is real.