Capitalism on the blink, gambling on the up...How timely
A thrilling New York ensemble take the Fringe by storm, while a hilariously silly puppet enthralls
Sunday 14 August 2011
Talk about timely.
As the US and Europe scrabbled on the brink of financial turmoil, an outstanding New York ensemble called the Theatre of the Emerging American Moment took the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by storm with Mission Drift. Aka the TEAM, these young avant-gardists are near world class now, the Wooster Group of their generation. Managing to be at once artistically daring and intelligently researched, Mission Drift is a history of American capitalist aspirations.
The saga starts in 1624 as Catalina and Joris – teenage émigrés from Holland – land in New Amsterdam, then push on to make a mint out West. The story ends in 21st-century Las Vegas where, almost surreally, ever-bigger casino complexes are on the drawing-board, even as the economy is crumbling. Joan, a lowly employee, is laid off and hits the bottle. Still addicted to the American dream of wealth and expansionism, she hears the siren song of a sinister, slinky chanteuse called Miss Atomic. An American Indian called Chris, whose house has been possessed by city authorities, urges Joan to escape, with him, to a ranch in the wilderness. Her good-life angel?
Director Rachel Chavkin's cast don't just create a sardonically bleak vision of avarice but also sympathetically capture the ecstatic hopes of entrepreneurial youth. That's epitomised by Libby King's brave, bounding Catalina before she and Brian Hastert's Joris weary and lose their identities, morphing into generations of couples with different names.
Mission Drift is a stylish and thrillingly wacky piece of music theatre too, with an onstage band under glitter-fringed palm trees, Heather Christian's hauntingly crooning Miss Atomic, and everyone jazzily dancing round deckchairs on a strip of plastic lawn.
I hope this lands a London transfer. It was certainly the top show I saw at the Traverse. Mark Ravenhill's staged song-cycle Ten Plagues proved a publicity-hyped bore at the same address. It's feebly performed by Marc Almond, playing a 1665 Londoner, implicitly, anachronistically dicing with Aids. Conor Mitchell's modern score drones on, accompanied by naff video footage of good-looking ghosts.
Zinnie Harris's The Wheel was more impressive, set in a nightmarish, shifting war zone where a tough cookie called Beatriz (Catherine Walsh) is obliged to take under her wing an abandoned girl who develops disturbing psychic powers. This is like Brecht, Edward Bond and Caryl Churchill's Far Away crossed with the The Midwich Cuckoos. It rambles somewhat, but Vicky Featherstone's Traverse/National Theatre of Scotland premiere is mostly gripping, staged with beautiful austerity in a bunker lit by shafts of pale sunlight.
The Pleasance, meanwhile, has come up trumps with Thirsty, a show exploring the liberating/destructive pull of alcohol. This devised piece, by the Paper Birds, deftly blurs autobiographical anecdotes of heavy boozing – which actresses Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh chattily relate – with confessions accrued from members of the public who phoned in or wrote. The focus soon becomes young women's binge drinking.
What is terrifically sharp is how Thirsty – vibrantly choreographed and sensitively paced – slides between re-enacted flashes of merry, whooping girls' nights out and seriously horrifying, helpless flailing. Poignant without getting preachy, this ought to tour nationally.
Lastly, also at the Pleasance, The Table, by the acclaimed puppet company Blind Summit. Inspired by Sam Beckett but more hilariously silly than bleak, this show features a splendidly crotchety puppet, stuck – eternally – on a table. Operated by three consummately skillful puppeteers, his jerking, angular head is like a cardboard-box-turned-tribal mask, and his little body dangles below like a fat-bellied rag doll in bovver boots. Kicking around with nothing to do, he becomes a growling comedian and a fabulous close study of pointless pottering.
Edinburgh Fringe (0131-226 0000) to 29 Aug
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