Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Losing it

The solar storms of last week have nothing on the tempest that erupted in our kitchen this morning, when poor old Busytot dropped the vintage yellow Fiestaware teacup. "No break cup!" he howled, just a split-second too late for the fundamental laws of the universe to temporarily reverse themselves. Cue total meltdown.

This was a real corker. See, the cool thing about toddlers is that they spend all day literalizing metaphors -- making waves, being on the ball, getting hopping mad, driving various things up the wall, kicking the bucket, you name it. Today, before breakfast was even over, we got "crying over spilt milk" AND "a storm in (or technically about) a teacup." Not to mention "picking up the pieces."

The teacup, which I got for a buck at a rummage sale, isn't completely irreplacable – although I admit I nearly shed a tear myself when I saw what those puppies go for on eBay – but as far as Busytot is concerned it was a singularity, and now it's gone. Shards swept into a paper bag and put in the rubbish bin. He was so distraught he tried to climb in after it. Feet first, like a grief-maddened widower leaping into a grave. And then he spent five abject minutes lying prostrate on the floor and sobbing into the grubby kitchen mat. None of which will bring that special teacup back.

It would have been so easy to chivvy him out of it, to say "oh well", to remind him in a Buddhist sort of way that attachment is the origin of suffering (duh: anyone who's tried to prise a wine-glass from the death-grip of a determined toddler has that concept down pat). But this seemed worth taking seriously. Sometime soon, something is going to become his first memory. And first lost things make a huge impression.

Remember yours? Remember the first object or creature you really, really, really loved? Where is it now? Gone? Lost forever?

Well, here's the funny thing: wherever it is, it's still in your life -- as a story. And as long as you tell your story to someone else, that lost object continues to exist.

This was the premise of a brilliant new show I saw the other night: "Gone Missing," by The Civilians. Lucky we caught it: it was the second to last night of the run, and until three hours before showtime we thought we might just catch a movie (forgetting temporarily that we can watch all the movies we like on DVD fifty years from now, when we're living in Taihape or wherever we can afford to buy in NZ now that the cat is out of the bag thanks to the LA Times).

But good live theatre isn't something you can get any old where, so we forked out that little bit extra for some off-off-Broadway fun. The venue alone was worth the ticket price: The Belt, a former warehouse in the Garment District that's been refashioned into a theatre using what appeared to be red velvet church pews, wrought-iron fencing, and number 8 wire. It's on an otherwise deserted block (if you don't count the parking garages and the Cuban diner and the sister-venue The Zipper just down the road), it's dimly lit in the manner of an Amsterdam brothel, and it serves excellent drinks at tiny tables while you're waiting. I was fully satisfied in every respect even before the non-existent curtain went metaphorically up.

But on with the show: the troupe, which counts among its mentors the inimitable Caryl Churchill, specializes in "docudrama," stories based firmly in real life but massaged into theatrical form. (NB They're not alone in this technique: Chicago's Neo-Futurists have forged a similar approach over the last decade and a half. And the Civilians' bare-bones stagecraft, innovative delivery and minimalist music took me back to early Front Lawn days [why no link? No Front Lawn tribute page, that's why. I know, inexplicable]).

Like the best art, "Gone Missing" reminds us why we need art at all. For this show, The Civilians interviewed dozens of people about things they'd lost -– just things, not people, or jobs, or money -- then wove those stories together with gorgeous songs into a meditation on the nature of loss and the art of memory.

In the course of the show, six talented and charismatic performers (three men, three women), all dressed in suits and with their hair slicked back into anonymity, evoke the voices and mannerisms and situations of a huge range of people. Young, old, cops, philosophy professors, elderly mothers, deli owners, stockbrokers -- they all describe the loss of something important. A cellphone. A beloved ring. A kitten. A tiny doll made from a sock. A shoe. Stories are told in tones ranging from tragic, disbelieving, bereft, to self-mocking or self-dramatizing, or, in the case of the handful of miraculous findings, quietly or ecstatically triumphant.

The songs mostly provide comic relief. A tale of lost wallets and much more is transformed into a sort of fado/mariachi/flamenco act, in "La Bodega." There's a girl-group number about why an ex-boyfriend needn't come by to pick up his stuff. But laughter shades into heartbreak in a song about feeling trapped in a game of hide and seek, and in "Lost Horizon," a torchy ode to how easy it is to lose yourself in another person.

Then there's the chap who earnestly keeps trying to think of something he's lost, to please the interviewer. "Well, lessee, I los' my job, all my money... but you don' want that, right? Just things. OK, I think. I get back to you." Or the black teenager hassled by the cops for having lost his ID. Or the retired NYPD cop who describes a working lifetime of gruesome finds. "You gotta laugh, right?" he constantly reminds the audience, with increasingly desperate bluster, "oh, but never in front of the family."

Characters are evoked with (mostly) perfect accents from across the spectrum of New York voices – Korean, British, Jamaican, Brooklyn, Puerto Rican, Upper East Side – and with carefully chosen gestures. An elderly woman fends off a helping hand to sit down by herself -- she may have lost her steadiness but she can at least sit down unassisted. A highly educated man, who once lost large chunks of his vocabulary, visibly seizes up and gropes for words as he relates the story and by implication remembers everything he felt at the time. Three women describing the loss of precious rings unconsciously fold their hands tightly together, as if to forestall the loss that has already happened.

Naturally, given the location, the shadow of 9/11 hovered over the stage. But it was only invoked once, and then obliquely, in the story of a man who lost -- and then recovered -- something that on any other day would have been quite important. He seems almost guilty telling the story, as if a dropped palm pilot barely merits mention in the light of what else was happening around him. And that day is hinted at again in the final moments, in which the performers depart the stage one by one, leaving in their place a Magrittean tableau of absence made palpable. I found it utterly hollowing.

And yet this is not a heavy show. It's funny and engaging and deeply accessible. If you get a chance to see it (it has finished its run at the Belt Theater for the moment, but seems like something that will be resurrected), you'll notice how beautifully constructed it is. Watching it is like reading a masterfully written novel: you can see the ending coming, you know it's going to make you cry, but there's nothing you can do about it -- you just have to live through it, with Jude, or Anna Karenina, or Charlotte and Wilbur. This is art as catharsis: for an hour and twenty minutes, you sit through a mounting accumulation of losses big and small, but you leave the theatre feeling somehow unbearably light, with something intangible gained.

It was all very Greek (ancient, I mean): channelling voices, dramatizing the fickleness of the gods, illuminating puny human lives. And it was laced with references to make a classics geek swoon. Freud, Locke, Atlantis, the Sargasso Sea and the mysterious life of eels. And a brief reference late in the piece to Simonides completely did my head in (if you know the story, you'll never again read stories about what happened in the WTC and the Pentagon and those planes, or indeed any post-disaster journalism, without thinking of it).

Oh, and that old rascal Plato makes a crucial appearance in a strangely comforting lullaby that sums it up -- death, teacups, and all:

When I lost my keys,
You told me the words of Plato:
That our possessions are only shadows,
echoes of fate,
So that the things that you lose, you never possessed.

You're only remembering, only remembering...
The things that we see
are just memories of the things that used to be.