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"Charlie Victor Romeo" are the military phonetic alphabet calls for "CVR" - the aviation abbreviation for the Cockpit Voice Recorder, known in the popular media as the "Black Box."

"Charlie Victor Romeo" is also the title for one of the most gripping pieces of live theater I have seen in recent memory. To describe it as simply as possible, the show consists of 5 live reenactments of actual commercial and military aviation accidents, the performances based word for word on the recovered recordings from the flight deck recorder.

If this sounds harrowing, you're right. At one point, my "suspension of disbelief" was so strong that I suffered a massive cramp in my right calf. I was sweating, locked onto the arms of my seat with a white knuckled grip. The audience was spellbound - gasps, excited and sincere profanity, and groans of sympathetic agony punctuated the house. I don't know if this would work in a recorded medium. It needs the scale and immediacy of live theater. We need to be trapped in the room with the flight crew, no pause button, part of the instant community formed in an airliner or theater.

After using Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" as walk-in music, the show opens with two of the female cast members walking down the aisles and then standing stage left and right to perform the "your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device in the event of a watery evacuation" speech we all know so well. It sounds corny. I knew every word they were going to say the moment they started, and yet it worked. Their performances were so deadly serious - professional and simultaneously bored - that it functioned as a warm up. The audience was transported and the "fourth wall" was gone. We were there on the flight deck.

The set was simple and concrete. The pilot and co-pilot faced the audience from behind an instrument console. A chair for the flight engineer was behind them to stage right, behind that the bulkhead to the passenger deck. The actors sat in their respective seats, in airline uniforms or flight suits, donned live headsets, and performed.

There were six scenes - each beginning with a projected title card that gave the airline, flight number, and location of the incident. It also gave the flight manifest for the number of crew and passengers. Each scene ended with a instant "kill to black", followed by a closing title card tallying the casualties. I won't go into details, as this would diminish the experience should you be lucky enough to see the show. I will say that only one segment was below par, and the last was transcendent - the actors coming together in a fusion of measured talent that creates the "dramatic moment" that is the goal of all realistic theater. The "real" is destroyed, and only thing left is the present of the performance.

Why did this work? Hard to say, but I credit the strength of the idea's fundamentals, and the technical prowess of the performers. They are forced to deliver organic, technical speech, and do it utterly convincingly. The vocabulary they throw out with offhanded professionalism is impressive: altitudes, phonetic alphabet, rudder ratio, V-1, V-2, Rotate, ILS, SAM, VOR... the list goes on and on. Despite the fact that the aviation mode of performative utterance is designed to standardize verbal communication, the individual personalities of each pilot and crew member shine through. Yet the approach is unsentimental, without being sensationalistic. I've read a number of fatal CVR transcripts, and a lot of them end with people crying and praying. The scenes depicted seem to be selected for their display of human emotion and personality. I recognized people I knew in these scenes - the solid types that still joke when the heat is on, quietly doing their jobs. The weak minded who fail to accept reality, and only look to displace blame onto others, even when confronted with their death.

Which brings me to the most significant aspect of the piece. What at first seems like a dramatic stunt, reenacting actual CVR transcripts, becomes a document of the human condition. It was the personality of the pilots, confronted with death and failure, that I took away from the performance. Despite their training and their jargon, whether they handle the emergency with nobility, fear, panic, or equanimity, I felt a powerful connection to each of these pilots personality. You're listening to the rational mind fighting panic, life fighting death. What could be more human?.

In my estimate, about 1/3 of the audience were actual civilian, military, and private pilots. I saw too many short haircuts, big watches, and personal commo gear to think otherwise. According to the playbill, this is consistent with the usual audience makeup. I heard two guys talking over their flight plan for the next day in the restroom. To quote the playbill:

Embraced by the aviation community for its unsparing truthfulness and dedication to its non-sensational approach, CHARLIE VICTOR ROMEO has been filmed by the US Air Force as a training video for pilots and has been observed by West Point Cadets enrolled in courses studying engineering psychology and human error.

Created by the acting company Collective: Unconscious , CVR opened in the fall of 1999 in an off Broadway house on NYC's lower east side. If you ever have the chance to catch this performance - don't miss it.

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