Architecting, The Pit, Barbican, London

Awakened by an American dream
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The Independent Culture

I correctly reckoned that I was going to love Architecting from the second I saw the name of the US troupe that has devised this piece (developed under the aegis of the National Theatre of Scotland). They call themselves the Theatre of the Emerging American Moment (TEAM). It was the word "emerging" that made me fall for them. We are constantly told that theatre is the medium of the present tense, but this company refines that notion with terrific insight and flair. They know that the present never really arrives and that all we can do is travel hopefully within our consciousness, which is a constantly shifting mix of retrospection, hopes for – and anxieties and fantasies about – the future and a kind of squinting look at the liminal overlap between the two. What emerges in this marvellous (sometimes messy, but always stimulating) collaborative show underlines how sharply TEAM understand that theatre is like a magnified version of the eye of the needle through which this complex weave of consciousness is threaded. And they demonstrate this wisdom in the wit, verve and pained insight with which they bring past, present and future in a glorious mélange of jumble and judicious ordering onto the stage at the same time.

The question that seems to connect the various strands of the piece is: how do people summon the spiritual wherewithal to survive disaster? With the whole of American history as its oyster, Architecting is shadowed by the Civil War, though this is refracted through the often very camp reflections on the book and the movie of Gone with the Wind. It's a mark of the show's method that the novelist Margaret Mitchell has somehow fetched up posthumously in a condemned bar in New Orleans in the wake of the Katrina, the disaster that is angled here as a contemporary counterpoint. I hope that Trevor Nunn and the company that gave us the recent stage musical version of Gone with the Wind – an enterprise that was gutless and toothless with slack liberalisation – manage to find themselves at a performance of Architecting, which has brilliantly perceptive fun with the idea of a ghastly Speed-the-Plow-type American film producer planning a bogus politically correct modern movie of the book in which an ancestor of Martin Luther King will battle for better wages.

And yet one of the lovely things about Architecting – which is performed with extraordinary accomplishment by a troupe who shift with ease from stand-up comedy to historically echoic pastiche song to expressive group movement etc – is the fact that its satire is never snide or wizened. Alongside the spirited pops at Tinseltown opportunism, there is a wacky, heartening road-movie-style plot-line about the aspirations of a young girl who is travelling to the open auditions for the role of Scarlett O'Hara. She winds up driving in a car with a garage attendant who decides to play hooky from his life and even eventually becomes a crinolined contender for the part himself. Visionary in concept and execution, this show is also centrally concerned with folk who are, in their various conflicted ways, visionaries. Among the personnel who leapfrog over each other in a show that sometimes reminds you of Tony (Angels in America) Kushner and sometimes of Robert (The Dragons' Trilogy) Lepage, there are Henry Adams (of The Education Of...) and the bereaved daughter of a great architect who has plans for a utopian un-gated community to be built over the ruins of New Orleans. TEAM understand that the present moment is hopelessly parochial but that it is the only thing we have and that by redefining it as the emerging moment you get access to the infinitely adjustable lumber room of the future and the rich hinterland of the hitherto. You emerge with a widened sense of life's possibilities.......... 

To 14 November (020-7638 8891; www.barbican.org.uk)

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