Monday 8 August 2011

Mission Drift - Traverse Theatre

[written for]

New York's the TEAM (their name, preposterously, or marvellously, depending on your tastes, stands for Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) have become something of an Edinburgh institution. They've returned a number of times with shows of increasing size, complexity and perplexity. Mission Drift feels like their big crossover moment.

The show is a kind of hyper-speed history of North America since the 1600s, here enacted entirely by youthful, naïve Dutch couple Joris and Catalina Rapalje (Brian Hastert & Libby King), coupled with a kind of Living in End Times narrative set in Las Vegas.

The real stroke of genius here, though, is that the TEAM have also dropped a whole gig onto the thing, led by the blistering presence that is Heather Christian. She's small, bottle-blonde and vampy, and has the most incredible voice you'll have heard in quite some time - a meeting in a trashy motel between Janis Joplin, her out of Portishead and the one from Nouvelle Vague who does the cover of Psyche – pretty much ripping up the whole auditorium from the stage, and forcing a whole new level of engagement from the audience.

The music itself is an ingenious mixture of soul, gospel and blues. Coupled with a self-lacerating rendition of American history, the music has the useful effect of reminding us that whatever we might think of America's past – the near-genocide of the native Americans, the catastrophic atomic adventurism, the naked, aggressive capitalism, etc. – it is by no means a cultural desert. Although, perhaps it is mostly serving to remind us that the Devil has all the best tunes. Indeed, the whole show is soaked in an obvious affection for Americana even as it struggles to resist the structures that underpin it, which makes it a lot better than much of the knee-jerk anti-Americanism often found at the Fringe.

In terms of staging, it looks like the TEAM have been mainlining Volksbühne productions like they're going out of fashion. Perhaps all successful critiques of capitalism have to have big, rangy stages with a drum kit and a load of mess spread out over an astroturf lawn. But whatever. It looks great and gives the production exactly the space it needs.

Curiously, for all this postmodernism, this is actually a very legible show in terms of its narrative structures and how they operate. At its most simple, it's two romances: one brash, sexy and youthful, the other older and more bittersweet. The young, dumb, hot version is the history of America. The older, more careworn version is essentially the effect of that history on those living in the present it created. The great thing about the way the show operates, however, is that none of this feels half as obvious or laboured as I've just made it sound. There's a playful lightness about the way the show pushes its characters around which almost suggests you should dip in and out of the various levels at which it operates. With the added advantage of having Christian – essentially playing the soul of American Capitalism, Las Vegas and the Atomic Bomb – blow the whole thing apart every five minutes with another number. The cumulative effect is pretty special, even if it does feel that the show could probably achieve more by losing twenty minutes from the end, which gets a bit explain-y.

As a kind of theatrical snapshot of the present day, it's hard to imagine a more exciting despatch, though.

[all photos © Rachel Chavkin]

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