NYC Fringe Review: CIVILIAN (Bleecker Street Theatre)

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by Eve Meadows on August 26, 2011

in Theater-New York


No matter how worthy Civilian is, with its interviews of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, one cannot call this play effective theatre. There have been several moving documentaries of real soldiers being interviewed on HBO and fine war plays written by imaginative writers, but this “documentary drama” by playwright and director Herman Daniel Farrell III (co-writer of the Peabody Award–winning HBO Film Boycott) is neither fish nor fowl. Not a documentary (as University of Kentucky (UK) students are employed to tell the veterans’ stories) and not a drama (as it lacks the creative shaping of events by a playwright), Civilian is almost entirely verbatim recitation. The harrowing stories are disjointed, rambling back and forth from one soldier to another until all the material seems to merge together. Hearing one hard tale after another (including the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life), one soon becomes numb and resistant to empathy.

CIVILIAN by Herman Daniel Farrell III – Bleecker Street Theatre - New York International Fringe Festival 2011Mr. Farrell’s staging was arbitrary and monotonous; chairs are moved from one corner to another to indicate change of time and place, but it interrupts the tension’s momentum. The best thing that can be said about Mr. Farrell’s direction is that he the actors keeps from overreaching their emotions, but the young college students working on this material are just not able to convey the momentous effect and profound changes brought about by the soldiers’ experiences.

One actor did speak with a flat affect associated with those suffering great emotional overload or trauma, but it was inconsistent. Thus, it was jarring when he spoke in a normal manner. Another actor fared a bit better than the rest simply because he was somewhat older and more centered. But overall it was evident that the performers were asked to do more than they possibly could with their limited experience and emotional capacities.

CIVILIAN by Herman Daniel Farrell III – Bleecker Street Theatre - New York International Fringe Festival 2011Those involved in helping soldiers and bringing their difficulties to public attention should be commended: Doug Boyd (director of the UK Center for Oral History), Tyler Gayheart (alumnus), and Tony Dotson (director of the Veterans Resource Center). It might even be helpful for UK students to act out these stories for their greater understanding, and even as an acting lesson. But alas, good intentions do not make for artistic excellence.

evemeadows @

photos by Mark Boxley/KY Forward

performance schedule ends August 28

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Herman Farrell August 29, 2011 at 8:05 pm

I usually do not respond to a review. But this one requires a response. I won’t argue with your opinions about the play, you are certainly entitled to them. It’s fortunate that most audiences over the FringeNYC run and during the run of previous productions did not share your cynical viewpoint. They (veterans, civilians and some other critics) appreciated the artistic excellence and, yes, good intentions of the piece. But that said, I do feel that I need to respond to your first dig at this production: criticizing the use of the term “documentary drama” to describe the play because actors portrayed the veterans — as opposed to veterans actually appearing on stage. First, you should have read your program, where you would have seen that a veteran did indeed perform in the play (though he did not play himself). Second, and more importantly, in contemporary drama, the term “documentary drama” is applied where the text is derived from documentary sources. In many cases, that text is then performed by professional actors, as in The Laramie Project and the work of Anna Deavere Smith. You also criticize the fact that the play is “verbatim recitation.” Indeed, another phrase for “documentary drama” (applied most often in the United Kingdom) is “verbatim theatre.” I guess it’s too much to ask that a reviewer comprehend the terminology. A critic, on the other hand, would have understood this.


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