Review: America Is Hard to See (Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh)

After running in the US, the verbatim piece makes its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe

America Is Hard To See
America Is Hard To See
© Travis Russ

It's the wave-particle duality – when unobserved, rays of light can act as a wave yet while under scrutiny they present themselves as a series of particles. Verbatim theatre has a similar problem – the moment someone knows they're being interviewed for a play, their behaviour starts to alter. Truth can fall away.

America is Hard to See, created by Travis Russ and Priscilla Holbrook, thrives on this disparity. The piece, laden with catchy tunes sung beautifully by the cast, is based upon interviews at or within a few miles' radius of Miracle Village, a Florida compound where scores of sex offenders, unable to live within certain distances of certain public spaces due to the conditions of their parole, eat, worship and, notably, sing together.

Taking the words of criminals, criminals with a confirmed history of lying, and adding them to Holbrook's 18 catchy, heart-soaring numbers is an utterly disconcerting experience. Emotions drag you one way while your awareness of the crimes committed drags you another: "Some of the children I molested were 4, maybe 5", one of the interviewees states, "some were a lot younger."

While it addresses recurrent themes of redemption, love and unreliable narratives, the play also self interrogates, questioning its form and why it is even on stage. What does it mean to take voices, unreliable voices, and place them in front of punters? Does performance provide validity? Should we believe something just because it is being told to us, as an acquiescent audience?

But on top of this, there's a whole other series of debates about what it means to be a practising Christian, a religion based on forgiveness, and encounter someone who had committed unforgivable acts.

The thematic tension slips away a bit as the show continues, and the story of Miracle Village and the forgiveness of the people of Pahokee starts to hold the spotlight. You see a pastor, Patti, who welcomes the singing Miracle Village inhabitants into her church. She even allows one of the felons to begin dating her daughter Lexi – you almost have to stop yourself getting caught up in the swooping ballads sung between young lovers, discovering each other's passions and pastimes. It's unnerving, disconcerting stuff.

The pastor Patti and her daughter were present at the performance we were in. When introduced at the end of the show they stood up and hugged one another, crying and unmoving until the audience had left the auditorium.