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The Big One 

An ambitious play performed with a live soundtrack -- what's not to love?

Wednesday, Mar 16 2005
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"All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie." This catchy dollop of cynicism is actually an old Bob Dylan lyric, but it's also the cornerstone of New York-based playwright Liz Duffy Adams' new work. One Big Lie is about what we hold to be true; it follows three siblings through three wildly distinct periods as they wrestle with the planet's evil forces and witness how people turn their backs on one another during times of cosmic despair.

"The play is about complicity," says Crowded Fire Artistic Director Rebecca Novick. "It's about the ways we participate in what's wrong with the world."

Lie is comprised of three acts, each involving gods and mortals but taking place in a different era. The first act is set in a mythical ancient world in which the rulers are similar to Greek deities but have tweaked names such as "Passing Nameless 3 a.m. Dread" and "Spelling, Volcanoes, and Ineffectual Epiphanies." In a noir-style Act 2, we meet the same beings, but now they're part of the pre-World War II decades of the 1920s and '30s, when they take the shapes of robber barons, bishops, and other powerful figures. The final third of the play happens in the not-so-distant future at a postwar tribunal in which the lords are tightly connected to the almighty judges. Through it all, the three mortal siblings are pawns of the universe, portrayed in the various ages as, respectively, prehistorical characters, workers in an ammunition factory, and civilians on trial for conspiracy and treason. While their environments keep changing, their fates remain the same: One sister is continuously kidnapped, one brother repeatedly murdered, and the other sister always left to pick up the pieces.

In the last few years, Adams (a member of the N.Y.-based playwrights' organization New Dramatists) has become a main attraction in the Bay Area, particularly after the staging of her two successful world premieres, The Train Play and Dog Act. One Big Lie, a co-production of the edgy Crowded Fire theater company and the prestigious Playwrights Foundation, was jointly commissioned by the same two groups in fall 2003; Adams wrote it specifically for Crowded Fire actors. It got a public reading at the 2004 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and, perhaps as a karmic result of being inspired by a rock lyric, eventually morphed into a full-on musical with 21 songs, all by the troupe's resident composer, David Rhodes. The music, performed live by a four-piece band, is a collage of a little bit of everything, from show tunes to jazz riffs to a smattering of old-fashioned rock 'n' roll.

The project may be Crowded Fire's most ambitious work to date (it's funded in part by the NEA and Zellerbach). But, says Novick, it's "squarely in the heart of what we do: work that's experimental and new and stretching the boundaries of the form." -- Karen Macklin

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Karen Macklin

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