Circa Theatre
May 10-June 14 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

THE CIRCA production of The American Pilot is a New Zealand production of a play written by a Scottish born playwright which is set in a nameless village, clearly somewhere in the Middle East or Balkans, which critiques American foreign policy. It’s a slightly bewildering multinational experience as a result. An American pilot, who consistently repeats his credentials, crash lands in an unnamed country (I thought it was most likely to be Afghanistan) that is rent by civil war. The blonde Southerner named Jason Reinhardt seems more concerned about the fate of his IPod than the villagers who appear to hold his life in the balance. The village he has crashed near is fighting in opposition to the side backed by America. Unable to walk, he is brought to a barn by the poor farmer who finds him. His fate is then up to the local captain of the rebel forces, who oscillates between the options of killing him or ransoming him, aided by his translator. The farmer, his wife and their daughter, as well as a local trader and the captain’s translator all enter the mix with their own views on the figure of the pilot and his fate. Clearly the point is that when America gets involved, it is the local people that end up worse off. The irony in that it is the American pilot who is seemingly the victim. However, they are each in turn infected by their brush with America; as one character informs the other “America has happened to you.”

Structurally the play mingles poetic, retrospective monologues, delivered by every character except the pilot, with scenes revolving around the pilot that are rooted in realism. Each monologue reveals a different perspective of the pilot – as an exotic beauty; a heaven sent saviour; a commercial opportunity; as a representative of all that is both right and wrong with the modern Western world. Although the monologues are beautifully written for the most part and allow the audience a privileged insight into the extent of miscommunication and deception that is occurring between characters, they sit uneasily with the explosive action of most of the scenes and also force the actors to slide uncomfortably back into the action. Director Susan Wilson also fails to allow the play to build as it feels it naturally should, particularly in the first few scenes and rushes the final one.

As the Pilot, largely unable to communicate with the villagers, Kip Chapman conveys a realistic mix of naivety, arrogance and fear. His idea of being a prisoner seems to stem far more from movies than anything else. Although the play is in English it is clear that the villagers do not understand the Pilot when he speaks to them, except for a few words understood by Evie, the daughter. The captain and trader also don’t speak English. This means that the main channel of communication is the Translator (Jason Whyte) who has a deep distrust bordering on hatred of America after his time there as a Communist exchange student and the loss of his new wife to an American shell. His translations are deliberately hostile and filled with omissions (a reflection of the media perhaps?) The Pilot’s (appalling) selection of songs on his IPod establishes some connections, but the extent of the miscommunication is indicated when the Captain listens to some hip hop and concludes it is more likely to be a code than music.

Bruce Phillips, Michelle Amas and Jodie Hillock as the Farmer, his wife Sarah and daughter, Evie respectively, all acquit their roles well. Hillock especially warmed into the role of Evie as the night progressed, although her role is perhaps the most difficult as it has the least characterisation and the most symbolism – the allusion to Joan of Arc is obvious. Jason Whyte and James Ashcroft as the loose principled Trader also carry off difficult and slightly underdeveloped roles. It is Peter Hambleton who shines as the conflicted captain of the local rebel forces. He conveys an intriguing blend of brutality, hope, despair and is thrilling in his sheer unpredictability.

In terms of technical design, the set by John Hodgkins is excellent. It works brilliantly with Lisa Maule’s lighting design. Slat beams gave a dilapidated feeling to the barn of the farmer, but also allowed light to filter through beautifully. Although I cringed at most of the songs, I understand they are the ones included in the script, allowing me to overcome my initial prejudice to the sound design!

Although it is an intriguing allegory, the play is too schematic to do justice to the moral territory it purports to explore. A redeeming feature is that the play is not clearly a pro or anti American polemic. Those who seem to be the powerful ultimately end up being the most powerless. This is not a dilemma that is confined to one particular location; it permeates everywhere that the USA is involved. This is reinforced by the unnamed setting – it simply doesn’t matter because the problems could be or already are everywhere. However, an intricate network of issues becomes a jumble of words spoken by characters that never rise above the status of symbols, despite the fine performances of the entire cast. This is not helped by the end when all subtleties are destroyed by a use of force – ultimate resolution was always going to be impossible but this feels like a particularly unsatisfying cop out. Perhaps this is reflective of American foreign policy, particularly in respect of Iraq, but the questions raised in the play are not well treated ultimately. In the case of The American Pilot I would attribute this to the structure of the play, which oscillates too rigidly between monologue and scene and direction which at times felt a little rushed and did not allow the intricacies and failures in understanding to fully emerge.