Performing Arts: Theater
September 7, 2016
Audience members take their seats in The Flea Theater while The Clash plays from a peripheral speaker. Their calls of rebellion, already tamed by their place in mainstream cultural consciousness, are further disenfranchised by the faint volume maintained to allow pre-show chitchat. When Motherlode enters, we are overcome by the resonance of perfect harmony and Welsh’s sculpted vowels arranged by Max Mackintosh. Ancient sounds sung in an alien tongue repackage and shower New York theatregoers with the timeless will to resist arbitrary power.

The Good Earth tells the simple but continually relevant story of an uprooted community, staged by director/performer Rachael Boulton to evenhandedly incorporate speech with movement and vocal tones. Opening with firecracker Gwenllian Higginson as the young and tenacious Jackie, she gives a class presentation on her neighborhood. She begins with her immediate family and goes on to list every character in her town, each embodied in an instant amid a rotating people wall that forms, dissolves, and reforms across the front, crafting a kinesthetic popup book in a windstorm wildly fluttering the pages. Boulton forges a sense of density with a cast of five, encapsulating at once the richness of community and the disappearance of locals against a city council’s embrace of gentrification.

The play is hardly a musical. The tunes are energized respites, falling into opposing camps of slow wafting airs and driving rhythms that foreshadow British punk. Never sung to completion nor given space to begin, they arrive like the strike of a match from the hands of an idle child.

This sense of interruption is the play’s organizing principle. A character we never see, Bryan, disrupts daily conversation to speak of danger to encourage emigration. Jackie fancies herself an investigator, dropping into character without warning to ask innocuously invasive questions of her brother James’ sex life. Subject matter is equally viral. Ignoring the town’s transformation is futile as family friend Trish recounts a bad date at the new restaurant the locals were supposed to boycott. As such, citizen becomes interloper, as Jackie is made to feel inferior upon starting a new school, and, despite local criticism of cheaper new housing units, it is part of an old house that breaks loose and injures her, which James tries in vain to keep secret as to prevent the town from becoming its own assailant.

Despite this clutter, key figures are consistently missing, rendering many important exchanges as one-sided conversations. We take up the slack here, rapidly shifting identities from Jackie’s classmates to the mysterious Bryan to the vitriol- receiving council. Our perspective shifts as the behaviors of these characters alter according to who they need us to be.

By the end, James is the only local left, hauntingly recreating Jackie’s opening presentation. Both anti-gentrification and a lesson in impermanence, James is hardly portrayed as a hero, but could be an example of the consequences of civic meddling with otherwise well-intentioned people. He sighs, breath signaling shifts of setting, time, and affect throughout a story of resistance with the most inevitable practice of letting go.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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