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REVIEW: Reality Bites in Promise Land (Transatlantic Love Affair)

Emily Michaels King and Avi Aharoni in Transatlantic Love Affair’s production of Promise Land

Promise Land, a play by Transatlantic Love Affair, is about the immigrant experience in early twentieth century America.  It is undoubtedly a timely and highly relevant topic. This play reveals the trials and fears two young and naive immigrants faced when coming to the United States. The sympathetic telling of their story by the ensemble stands in stark contrast to the paranoia and off-hand dismissal expressed today about Muslim immigrants and refugees.  It is both a highly relevant and compelling storytelling.

Isabel Nelson directs this play which was conceived by Diogo Lopes and devised through a collaborative workshop process that emphasizes the physicalization of storytelling. The members of the ensemble include Avi Aharoni, Peyton Dixon, Julia Gay, Emily Madigan, Eric Marinus, Emily Michaels King, Gregory Parks, Adelin Phelps, and Allison Witham.

The ensemble of a Transatlantic Love Affair’s production of Promise Land.

The brother and sister characters leave an unnamed country that is experiencing a famine and their welcome to America becomes a literal a trial by fire.  These two newcomers to capitalism are naive about how quickly they can advance themselves economically. They are unaware about the cost of living in urban America and have a tendency to take people at face value which ends up leading them into a dangerous situation.

The young siblings cross the Atlantic in a ship’s steerage compartment and then venture for the first time in an American city.  The ensemble creates a mise en scene of the society that surrounds the two main characters including the ships’ crew shoveling coal into huge boilers and the hectic buyers and sellers in a New York City street market.  The actors mime the array of human activities and take on the roles of chairs, machines, tables and swinging doors.

Their movement work makes for imaginative onstage images and fluid scene transitions. It was especially striking when the ensemble took on the movement of the flames in a burning building.  The only downside to their work is the unvarying pace from scene to scene: there are no sudden spikes of energy. This results in the factory burning down having the same intensity as earlier domestic scenes.

Music is tightly integrated into the performance through the string work of Emily Dantuma, the composer and on-stage cello player.  Her cello workings provided mood effects, sound effects and music that interacted with the movement work of the ensemble.

Transatlantic Love Affair revels in the awesome potential of an empty stage and unbridled imagination.  The ensemble of performers create an entire society in both words and movement for us to watch and think about.  It also underscores that America has a long history of not welcoming immigrants.

Promise Land plays through Feb. 12 at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio.

Dan Reiva