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    Civil Liberties

    A far cry

    While attempting to give voice to the United States' post-Setp. 11 political prisoners, "Civil Liberties" feels distant because of a slim script and high-tech effects.


    If noble intentions and artistic ingenuity equaled great theater, "Civil Liberties" would be a knockout. But while heavy on politics, this self-described "avant-garde" musical's look at how 9/11 robbed Arab and Muslim immigrants of many basic freedoms needs a more substantial plot and fully developed characters.

    Full title: Civil Liberties: An Avant-Garde Musical.
    Written and directed by: Kris Kolker.
    Cast: Tiffany Lea Williams, Gagan Deep Singh, Michelle Ramoni, Kenneth Maharaj.
    Music by: Mike Kolker.
    Cooper Union, Wollman Auditorium / Lounge
    51 Astor Place
    Aug. 8-24, 2003

    As a result the show's unique musical aspects don't leave much impact. Composer and musical director Mike Kolker improvises the "score" — a mixture of electric jazz, modern opera and electronic dance music — at each performance, using computers to create the music as the actors' speak their lines (no song lyrics here). At times he electronically enhances and distorts their voices with a synthesizer — an effect that sometimes distances audience from actors.

    Playwright-director Kris Kolker's dramatization of two Arab newsstand workers detained on their way to North Carolina in search of work depicts an insidious — and underreported — consequence of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But characters and events are too sketchily portrayed to leave a vivid impression. Still, Kolker's story is convincing. Mody Naresh is a Hindu Indian, Tariq Ahmed a Muslim Pakistani. Both received science degrees in their homelands but wound up selling newspapers and magazines to support their families in America. And whatever they say to the series of officials questioning them backfires, keeping them behind bars for months and unable to tell anyone where they are.

    If one claims he's able to support his family on the scant income he's reported, then he must be getting money from a terrorist organization. If the other admits his wife was paid a small amount for part-time work, he's assailed for not reporting it. The six interrogating officers haughtily laugh and smirk at their prisoners — enough to make Snidely Whiplash seem like an understated villain — but don't seem especially authoritative.

    Four appealing young actors — Gagan Deep Singh and Kenneth Maharaj as the detainees, Tiffany Lea Williams and Michelle Ramoni as the interrogation officials — make up a capable cast. But "Civil Liberties" would have benefited from more comprehensive and detailed firsthand research, a la recent "documentary" plays like "The Exonerated" and "The Laramie Project."

    AUGUST 28, 2003

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