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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Daily
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Broom Street Theater's Civil presents an intriguing vision of the future justice system
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Civil explores a slew of thorny questions.
Credit:Dan Myers

Red, a character in Rob Matsushita's Civil, voices a common complaint about the American court system: It isn't the greatest at keeping up with the times, especially when it comes to technological innovation and relationship norms. But progress tends to happen eventually, as we saw yesterday in federal judge Barbara Crabb's decision to overturn Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage. Excitement -- even giddiness -- about this historic moment filled Broom Street Theater during Friday night's performance of the play, which runs through June 21.

The play takes place in the future, where civil trials happen virtually, with a jury of people who are either comatose or cryogenically frozen. No trial can be longer than 40 minutes, and the parties involved in the suit are represented by four actors -- Red (Alan J. Hart), Orange (Jenni Schwaner Ladd), Green (Katie Brotherton) and Blue (Jordan Peterson) -- who don't necessarily reflect their race, gender or physical characteristics. A character called Cursor (Grace Grindrod-Feeny) represents both sets of lawyers and the judge. She also narrates the proceedings, providing instructions for the jury along the way. The jury, meanwhile, is played by the audience.

Civil includes two trials the crowd gets to decide: one involving an unplanned pregnancy and another involving a death-row inmate. In the former, a couple can choose to give birth to the fetus at a later date, if certain terms are agreed upon. A man and woman who conceived 14 years earlier, shortly before breaking up, both want to claim the fetus they created. The woman is physically unable to have the child, while the man's wife of seven years is. This creates a slew of thorny questions to navigate.

The audience must choose whether to give full parental rights to the mother and her longtime boyfriend or partial rights to the father and his wife. Complicating matters, the wife holds a mysterious grudge against the mother and her boyfriend. As the different characters answer Cursor's questions, they often interrupt themselves to indicate that certain comments and questions have been redacted from the record. These interruptions are spoken in robotic voices that utter phrases like "Statement redacted!"

These interruptions happened dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Though they brought about laughs from the crowd over and over again, I found them more distracting than funny after a few minutes. At some points, they made the case at hand more difficult to understand.

Another interruption comes in the form of commercials, which provide comic relief in the midst of the proceedings. Some were funnier than others, and all were presented with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, to poke fun at some of the ridiculous material found in present-day commercials. Grindrod-Feeny was particularly adept at rattling off the sprawling list of potential side effects found in drug ads. Her speed and elocution were a joy to watch, and she got lots of laughs when she peppered the list with some particularly horrifying possibilities. That said, I wanted fewer commercials and more details about the cases themselves.

I found the evening's second case the most intriguing. A woman has been placed on death row for murdering a man in front of his wife. Both the murderer and the victim have subscriptions to a service that can place the memories and personality of a deceased individual in a new body, to create what's known as a hypercorporeal unit, or an HCU.

Legally, these synthetic humans do not have the same standing as the people they replicate. The wife of the victim argues that HCUs don't seem to produce original thoughts, and the victim's HCU suspects that the murderer may have killed other people as well. Then something happens that turns the entire situation upside-down.

This moment -- and the ruling of the case -- are the most exciting parts of the show. Though their impact would have been stronger without so many interruptions, they made me consider the many ways a court system can be tainted, even in a world more advanced than the one we call home.

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