“I think we’re getting really far away from something important,” says Anna, one of the six characters in The TEAM’s new play, Particularly in The Heartland, which runs through March 18 at PS 122. That “something” resides in the soul of the heartland, which is often obfuscated by the stereotypes and reductive portrayals of middle America.
The TEAM (Theater of the Emerging American Moment), a New York based ensemble of 20-something actors was formed in 1994. Since then, they have performed their work in New York, Scotland, London, Glasgow, and Toronto, among other places. Heartland won the 2006 Fringe First Award at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The company combines a sense of intense physicality, whether through dance or movement, with texts that are developed through improv and found material. But that is not a strict formula for each play-the look, feel and texture of the plays vary from piece to piece. Their play, Give up! Start Over! [In the darkest of times I look to Richard Nixon for hope], was a one-woman show. Other plays include: Howl, an adaptation of Alan Ginsburg’s poem; A Thousand Natural Shocks, which was a rock-and-roll inspired Hamlet; and Faster, inspired by the James Gleick book.
Heartland was initially inspired by the March 2005 Bankruptcy bill that President Bush sponsored, which effectively made it more difficult for average Americans to declare bankruptcy. Those hit hardest would be working class Americans—leading the company to wonder why Americans would be in favor of legislation that harmed the middle working class, particularly in the heartland.
“We are interested in how geography shapes your brain,” says Rachel Chavkin, director. For Heartland, Chavkin asked each company member to come up with forty images associated with middle America, and from those they developed ideas and images that run throughout the piece. The TEAM enters middle America with an inquisitiveness and openness worthy of Studs Terkel, a sort of response to the stereotypes and reductive formatting that have plagued media images of middle America in the last few years. What I think The TEAM recognizes is that the country is getting away from an honest dialogue, which is necessary for Americans to know themselves and to move forward in a progressive and humane way. By situating characters and ideas in apposition with middle America, they recognize the trickiness and difficulty in sustaining that dialogue. But that’s all part of their process; their sense of discovery.
Heartland is anything but didactic. It is a mix of goofiness, surreal juxtapositions, movement and punchy dialogue that engages and entertains. In the play, the ghost of Robert Kennedy (Jake Margolin) ends up in Kansas with the Springer family children (Frank Boyd, Libby King and Kristen Sieh), a pregnant alien (Jill Frutkin), and Dorothy, an East Coast corporate scientist (Jessica Almasy). Chavkin admits being obsessed with RFK—after JFK’s assassination Robert went through a major personal transformation (in one chilling speech RFK talks about how he and Robert McNamara advised Jack to strike Cuba during the missile crisis). And like RFK, Chavkin wants her audiences to leave the theater “having hope that America has still a chance at redemption, a chance at hope.”
Particularly in the Heartland runs Feb 26-March 18, Wednesdays through Sundays, at PS 122. Tickets: $18 ($10 for members. For more info: www.ps122.org or 212-477-5829.
GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.