Travis Russ and Life Jacket Theatre Company’s verbatim piece, America Is Hard To See, is arresting and unmissable.
Deep in southern Florida, a village provides a haven for registered sex offenders once they leave jail. Writer/director Travis Russ and Life Jacket Theatre Company decided to travel to this unique location, and make a verbatim theatre (and musical!). out of the stories they find. It surely holds its place as one of the weirdest pitches ever heard – and that is saying a lot during the Edinburgh Fringe – but the risk is more than worth it. America Is Hard To See is the best show I’ve seen so far this Fringe – and even beyond it.
It’s hard to isolate any component as particularly eye-catching in a show where everything – writing, direction, acting and live performed music – is superb. Even the venue’s perfectly chosen: the cold stone walls of Underbelly Cowgate juxtapose with the warm sounds of the company’s country music, complimenting this complex story to a degree you rarely see at Fringe.
The story is not an easy one, because it’s not as black and white as one would possibly expect. After spending a week in Miracle Village, Life Jacket clearly decided it was unfair to pose harsh judgement on them and instead chooses to portray them as nuanced individuals – but simultaneously, true forgiveness (or even just empathy) is close to impossible knowing the crimes the residents committed. The characters in America Is Hard To See have all sexually abused children, and one victim even wrote to the cast to be careful about how they portray these people (because one of the residents in that village ruined his life).
‘America Is Hard to See’ because its institutions, like everyone else’s, try to keep their darkest secrets hidden in places where no one will dare to look. But Travis Russ and Life Jacket Theatre Company effectively bring these stories to life and to the forefront of our attention, in order to ask how we deal with situations like this. Can we form relationships and friendships after an unforgivable crime, as people work on themselves to be better? Or do we keep on judging – and is that not entirely understandable if the offences are so serious? While a strong religious idea of forgiveness looms over the story, a request for such behaviour is not imposed on the viewer – it’s a decision everyone makes for themselves and, moreover, it is not a simple decision to make – not even for the pastor. As the show acknowledges, the residents (knowing the company was making a play about them) were likely to adjust their appearance.