Friday, January 31, 2014

Wrath Revisited

On the road with the Joads - and America - as the Great Recession and the Great Depression coalesce.

For the foundation of their haunting, high-tech meditation on the Great Recession, House/Divided (through this weekend at ArtsEmerson), the artists of the Builders Association have reached all the way back to its antecedent, the Great Depression - to The Grapes of Wrath, in fact, Steinbeck's mythic evocation of the American exodus from the Dust Bowl to the orange groves of California.  And they've done so with a startling level of technical brilliance. The Builders' conceit is to "play" Steinbeck's tragedy (literally, on a tape machine) while updating its physical surround into the digital space of the millennium.  Thus little is solid in this dark new update, and even less is "real": a virtual Joad homestead flickers before us on screens, slashed by stock tickers and news crawls, before eventually collapsing - while at other times the entire stage seems to melt into long tracking shots of the desolate American west, whose stony spires roll by like the monuments of an enormous cemetery.

Taken together, these digital gambits amount to a deeply resonant gesture - indeed, I've never seen the cultural space of the millennium conveyed with quite so much power. (And it's worth noting, I think, that this contradictory mix of the real and the virtual could only be conjured on a stage.) In one moment, Alan Greenspan looms over a doomed gated community like a digitized pharaoh - just before the suburb itself vanishes into pixels; in another, as the mortgages of the heartland go "underwater," a literal deluge sweeps over the stage. Just in terms of its imagery, House/Divided is mesmerizing; even hypnotic.

As drama, however, it's a little less successful, even if it offers up sketches that are almost painful in their ironic punch. In one, for instance, a man begs his bank (as it tosses his belongings into the street) for one last chance on his payments - only to discover that the bank doesn't own his mortgage anymore; it has been "securitized" into a thousand separate tranches; in effect, no one owns it - yet he's still out of luck. A similarly grim comedy plays out as various titans of industry assure the public that all is well on Wall Street in 2008, while master-of-the-universe types whine things like "First they came for Bear Stearns - and I said nothing!"

But writers James Gibbs and Moe Angelos (and director Marianne Weems, the driving force behind the Builders) haven't really figured how to weave together today's woes with yesterday's Wrath. And it has to be said they've basically hollowed out the Steinbeck to its skeleton. The deadening trek of the Joads across the desert does find an echo in the "squatters" of today's deserted suburbs (the moment when past and present seem to co-mingle on the road - see image at top - is one of the production's eeriest), and the final deluge is undeniably powerful; but somehow the Builders can't quite find a way to bind together the predatory capitalism that victimizes the Joads in California with the deregulatory abuses of the present day. What's missing, I suppose, is a convincing answer to the perennial paradox of the passivity of average Americans before their corporate masters - an explanation, if you will, for why the pregnant Rose of Sharon delivers a stillborn baby in California. Why are the grapes of wrath still stored?  Why haven't they long since broken open? The Builders don't have any idea - but then Steinbeck didn't, either.

Not that Weems & Co. aren't aware of the problem; indeed, I found myself wishing they hadn't decided to play the Joads in quite so flat a style - Ma and Tom barely register as characters, and other performances are tamped down to micro-gestures. Still, the diminutive Jess Barbagallo impresses in just about every role she takes on, and Sean Donovan, though he is far sexier than Alan Greenspan ever was, enacts a fascinatingly accurate micro-drama of contempt and guilt when the squirming former Fed chairman finally gets his comeuppance.

But the real star here is the show's design, a seamless weave of video (Austin Switser), sound (Dan Dobson), lighting (Jennifer Tipton and Laura Mroczkowski) and set (John Cleater and Neal Wilkinson) that few companies could match (indeed, Robert Lepage is probably the Builders' only competition). Thanks to them, the truth of the crash of 2008 goes marching on - at least virtually.

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