‘Mission Drift’ illustrates contemporary America on stage

American capitalism is a hot topic in today’s media. It’s on our televisions, it’s in our newspapers and now it’s on our stages. The Theater of the Emerging American Moment, or the TEAM, presented its most recent project, Mission Drift, at the College last weekend. Walking into the MainStage of the ’62 Center on Thursday night, I was greeted with one of the most elaborate and exciting sets I have seen on the stage in some time. Trees covered in colored tinsel, a live band, several lawn chairs and a sliding glass door were some of the larger props, while the stage was also covered with fake grass and strewn with plastic water bottles. The performance did not fail to be just as exciting as its set, which was kept consistent for the whole show. The show used plenty of lighting and sound effects, yet it also had the feel of something low budget in its recycling of props and simple scene changes.

The first character we are introduced to is Joan, a cocktail waitress who lives, works and breathes Las Vegas. Joan is loyal to her city and is optimistic that the building of the new casino “The Arc,” will mean a promotion and a raise. “The one thing you can’t outsource is hospitality,” she quipped to a costumer, Chris, just before she finds out that she is being laid off. I found that Joan, played by Amber Gray, was the most empathetic character throughout the show, drawing the audience’s sympathy by struggling with issues that we can all relate to in some way, including alcoholism, unemployment and extreme pride. Chris, meanwhile, is a classic cowboy who develops a surprisingly intimate relationship with Joan in the aftermath of her layoff after what seems like a meaningless one-night stand.

The plot becomes more complicated when Joan slips into what could very well be a drunken delusion and meets Miss Atomic, a showgirl from the 1950s. A very flashy and agile character, Miss Atomic serves as a go-between for Joan and the second cast of characters, Joris and Catalina, two Dutch teenagers who begin their story getting engaged before traveling to the great unknown America in the 1600s. “How far west do you think this place goes?” Catalina asked, to which Joris answered, “Very far.” Essentially embodying the American dream over the ages, Joris and Catalina move west across the United States and forward through time chasing the frontier, eventually finishing their story as real-estate tycoons in Las Vegas, formally employing a woman named Joan. The two plots intertwine in the climax of the play as Joan becomes overwhelmed by the destructive nature of American idealism, asking the question, “Why the right to boundless growth?”  Joan and Catalina go on a walk of self-discovery as they both decide what path in life they will take next. Catalina walks into the desert for miles and miles, and when she finally returns she says to Joris in one of the most poignant quotations of the show, “I was happy out there … not happy, happy’s not the word. I was finding moderation.”

While the two plots of this story are engaging and intimate, the form in which they were presented was interesting at some points and farfetched at others. Employing musical numbers, acrobatic dance moves and highly symbolic imagery, the cast told the two plots beneath a layer of abstraction. As the audience discovered later in the Q&A session with the cast and Associate Professor of English Christian Thorne, every dance move, every lyric and every line in the show was carefully selected from a melting pot of creative ideas that were accumulated over three years of work. From mimicking Elvis’s hips to evoking some of the well-known hand motions of Occupy Wall Street, every detail of the show down to the dance moves was founded in something relevant and well thought out.

Learning about the process that the TEAM uses to produce their shows shed a whole new light on the performance. The company and director Rachel Chavkin spent years researching the project, including spending a month in Las Vegas to gather interviews, reading volumes of books on the history of American capitalism and watching hundreds of YouTube videos. “This show has a sense of the epic and how things fit in a really massive time frame. We used really contemporary characters and historical stories,” Kristen Sieh, the woman who played Catalina, said. The conversation touched on how the show could not have been staged at a more apropos time amidst the excitement around the Occupy movements. And yet the company was sure to point out that they did not want the story to equate to the statement, “capitalism is evil,” but instead wanted to present as much of the information as possible to open up the conversation. The metaphorical representation of capitalism wasn’t a bald man in a business suit, but instead a couple of idealist teenagers who got caught up in the rush of the American dream. What this show did best was evoke the audience’s empathy by taking large overarching issues and putting them within the context of personal stories of characters whom we can relate to.

photo couRtesy of thegaurdian.co.uk.com Catalina and Joris chase the American frontier in Mission Drift, while Miss Atomic narrates their story from the background.