Sept. 28 2011 12:00 AM

MSU's strong double bill of dramas examines the aftermath of Sept. 11


Remember Sept. 11, 2001? Not the divisive rhetoric that
tirelessly evoked the date for political evasion or justification, or
the shameless merchandising that recently reached new lows (9/11
Merlot, anyone? Just $19.11), but where you were when you first heard
the tragic news.

Although the official 10th anniversary of the attacks has
passed, Michigan State University’s concurrent productions “What
Happened?” and “Return To The Upright Position” recall that day with
the dignity rarely seen in televised retrospectives.

Unlike starkly numbing photographs and video, both plays
respectfully recreate those memories viscerally through spoken word and
strategically placed smoke and mirrors.

“What Happened: The September 11th Testimony Project,” by
Amy S. Green, is a haunting virtual play-by-play of the day’s events as
they materialized. Audio clips of the morning’s pre-attack news
coverage evoke an eerie time capsule of headlines that were quickly
forgotten. Actors initially hike across the Arena Theater stage
mumbling their morning routines in regional accents that sound like
works in progress. Suddenly: blackout, smoke, dim lights and lots of

The moment the staged attack starts, “What Happened”
finds its groove. Instantly, actors become honest and empathetic
characters, turning descriptive accounts taken from eyewitness
interviews into a compelling drama.

Director Wes Haskell keeps the action moving, with actors
running and crawling across the bare stage, creating the illusion that
you are near the towers with them. 

Voices from firefighters, police officers and World Trade
Center employees paint a barrage of perspectives as the second tower is
hit and the buildings finally collapse. Even if you had no connection
to the events apart from watching them on television, the show’s
rapid-fire delivery of the unimaginable horror vicariously places the
audience within the madness.

As the action wanes, so does the play’s momentum. Slowly,
the play turns from “What Happened” into “Why Did This Happen” in an
apparent quest to find meaning in meaninglessness. Understandably,
playwright Green feels a responsibility to share the interviewees’
fears and hopes in addition to their immediate memories, but its
moralizing results in an uneven and sometimes uncomfortable resolution.

“Return To The Upright Position,” conceived and edited by
Caridad Svich, picks up where “What Happened” leaves off, poetically
chronicling the post-tramatic inner-drama of Sept. 11 survivors and

If “What Happened” is the taped interview, “Return To The
Upright Position” is the dream journal, weaving reality and smoky
metaphors into a staged nightmare. “Return” asks the
still-controversial questions, such as “Are the first-responders,
firefighters and police really heroes if they were just doing their
jobs?” and “Were the terrorists cowardly for what they did?”

The diversity of voices and perspectives offer more for all audiences to connect with, especially in the Midwest.

The overall theme of Sept. 11 as a catalyst for national
soul searching is summed up by one character lamenting the new Federal
Aviation Administration rule prohibiting flight over heavily attended
sporting events.

“I don’t know how to react to the fact that this country
will never be the same,” she says, noting the sudden absence of the
Goodyear Blimp. Indeed, uncertainty is a universal sentiment.

Director Lynn Lammers provides stunningly detailed
direction to her newbie cast, who look and sound far more experienced
than they probably are. Even speaking in stream-of-consciousness, the
cast members create clearly defined characters that provide voices and
faces to inconsolable pain. 

Costumes by Stephanie Henderson feature deep stains
(ashes? blood?) that provide a subtly symbolic touch. And Shannon
Melick’s scene design, featuring the New York subway map painted on the
floor and fences wrapped around the posts, give a sense of place
without clutter.

Both plays are a triumph for the entire MSU Department of
Theatre. The casts and direction in both instances are superb, offering
an opportunity for reflection and remembrance without feeling
exploitative or partisan. 

‘Two 9/11 Plays’

Michigan State University Theatre

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28, and Thursday, Sept. 29; 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1

MSU Arena Theatre