A friend of mine recently got married in Las Vegas and celebrated by going to see Rod Stewart in concert there. He was enchanted by the whole glitzy glamour of the experience, and yet he’s a pretty old-fashioned type of socialist and, as it happens, an actor.
So it still thrives, this mythical grail of gambling and entertainment, though not according to the Brooklyn-based ensemble known as The TEAM – Theatre of the Emerging American Movement – who identify a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah in the desert that has dislodged local communities and Native Americans and operated a system of destructive self-indulgence.
There is material evidence to support this position in the housing crisis and the emblematic Neon Boneyard, a dump (and tourist attraction) for old billboards along the Strip. And this is the basis of a hugely enjoyable anti-capitalist cabaret – a bit of a throwback to off-Broadway and Greenwich Village in the 1970s – with a raunchy roster of songs that twist and subvert the diamante-studded Vegas vibe.
These songs are performed (and composed) by the astonishing Heather Christian, a pocket dynamo as the party-pooping Miss Atomic, a former beauty pageant queen who also evokes the nuclear tests out in the Nevada desert. She comperes a double love story: that of a local couple thrown together on the economic scrap heap and of the real-life Dutch pioneers and capitalists Caterina and Joris Rapalje.
As the latter couple, Libby King and Brian Hastert provide the narrative momentum from their embarkation in 1624 to the colonisation of New Amsterdam and the arc of investment, crisis and desolation in the present. The title, and the show itself, imply there is only one conclusion to optimism and new beginnings.
Rachel Chavkin’s gutsy production maintains the energy levels noted when it first surfaced on the Edinburgh Festival fringe two years ago, but suffers from its group-authorship status. There’s none of the poetic intensity or richly layered personal stories in Sam Shepard’s desert cowboy plays, nor any of the stylistic brilliance in Phyllis Nagy’s The Strip, which placed several international stories within the neon-ribbed pyramid of the Luxor Hotel.
But it’s a compelling event all the same, and the audience in the NT’s temporary new venue, The Shed, is seduced the minute Miss Atomic blowzily greets us as pagans, Vegans, insomniacs, lizards, hospitality peddlers, sweethearts, assassins; we are desert people, and we make our homes in impossibility.
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