Monday, August 08, 2011

Edinburgh: Mission Drift at the Traverse

This is the fourth time that TEAM (the Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) have appeared on the Fringe. Their last show, Architecting, was a gloriously layered piece of theatre which stretched in many directions; ostensibly about the process of social repair following Hurricane Katrina, it used Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind as a window through which to explore American identity in the south, post-Civil War reconstruction and the emotional significance people attached to the built world.

This new piece sees them switch their gaze to the American west. Inspired by the story of Catalina and Joris Rapalje, a pair of Dutch teenage newly-weds who travelled on one of the first ship to take workers to what was then New Netherland. The real Joris became a successful Brooklyn magistrate and the father of eleven children; their descendants are now estimated at around a million and they have been labelled the Dutch American Adam and Eve – which is apt as here they become characters in a myth of origins, the parents of American capitalism. In TEAM’s version of their story the couple head out west, occasionally changing their names, but never aging, remaining eternal teenagers. Finally they end up in the desert, in the arid outlands of America, where they help raise a city from the sand.

The epic sweep of the piece is counter-balanced with a more intimate narrative. Joan is a cocktail waitress whose family have lived in Vegas for three generations. She loves the city; she is tied to it materially and emotionally and volunteers at the Neon Boneyard, the place where old Vegas signs are taken when they are no longer needed, a three acre collection of dead bulbs: ten-foot lettering, garish wedding chapel signage and a Cinderella slipper the size of a small house. But things are changing. The city, this “desert experiment” was, until recently, the fastest growing in the US, but this growth has tailed off in the current economic climate and Joan has just been laid off. She needs to get to grips with this new Vegas, toxic city, a place she wants to “kill in the face”; she needs to confront Catalina and Joris and make them face up to what they have made.

Music forms a huge part of the piece. Heather Christian’s Miss Atomic acts, as compere and narrator; she has an astonishingly rich voice, sometimes throaty and Joplin-esque, sometimes honey-coated and heavenly. Her songs drive the production; they stud it like mushroom clouds: “We’ll make millions here,” she drawls. Nick Vaughan’s scrappy set is a Douglas Coupland-esque landscape of lawn chairs, cocktails, fairy lights, tinsel-fringed trees and atomic glare – all that’s missing is the drained swimming pool. The band sits at the back of the stage besides Christian’s white baby grand.

The TEAM did on-the-ground research in Las Vegas and their collaborative process involved “bartering and argument”. The resulting production is tangled and thick with Vegas lore: Elvis, Frank, Sammy and The Sands (though there are some odd omissions; the Mafia don’t rate a mention). It’s more than a little chaotic in places, hyperactive and fidgety, but always compelling. At two hours without a break this is a long ride, but it’s one worth taking.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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