Saturday 20 August 2011

Movement is everything

Mission Drift, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

To create a little chunk of Vegas in the middle of a drizzling, miserable Edinburgh is something of a miracle. Yet Mission Drift, the dazzling fourth Fringe outing for The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment), does just that. Right down to the desert scorch that slows everything to a languid drawl.

In fact, location is right at the heart of this explosion of American capitalism, which manages to humanise dense theory with intelligence, heart and showmanship. The Vegas on show is simultaneously the neon boneyard of tourist snapshots and the nuclear testing ground beyond. It’s alluring but parched; addictive and parasitic; sexy right to the edge of repulsion; a headrush that tips into a migraine. Mission Drift shimmers with an artificial magnetism and spirals like a chain reaction, spinning faster and faster, growing more and more toxic. The glitzy city, the only blink of colour for hundreds of miles, seems to sap the life out of its surroundings.

But also from its inhabitants such as Joan, a cleaner – lowly and earthy – with dreams of working in the city’s newest mega-complex, the Ark. Prospective employees are promised the chance to ‘live and work towards purchasing’, as if nothing else could possibly matter. In part, Mission Drift is a story of Joan’s leaping off the runaway train that we’re all aboard. She realises her exploited position – that she, and millions like her, prop up a system that doesn’t return the favour – on meeting a defiant desert cowboy, who never bought into it in the first place.

They can never fully escape it though. Sat in foldable canvas chairs, they sip at beers that capitalism’s founding fathers, young Dutch couple Joris and Catalina Rapalje (Brian Hastert and Libby King), introduced to and forced upon the region.

Joris and Catalina’s relationship, extended over 400 years to envelop their future lineage, functions as a potted history of exponential expansion. Having left home for the new world, they keep on moving westwards, seeking new ground to birth new markets. Not pilgrims, but pioneers: ‘The frontier is the birthright of every American’. They are always 14 and always invading an older order, attempting to leave a mark on the world. Everything they do is innately aggressive: occupy and expand, destroy and rebuild. Better. Bigger. Brasher. As the volume gets louder and the speed increases, it becomes hard to distinguish destruction from creation. They fill gaps in the market so full that other fissures appear elsewhere. They destroy in order that they create solutions.

Together they grow from naïve adolescents to the sort of adrenaline-fuelled roadsters that Hollywood adores, their hair flicking behind them in an open-top Chevrolet. Theirs is the sexiness of youthful passion steering its own course for the first time, breaking the chains of upbringing and expectation, doing it for themselves. Theirs is the cool of unbothered rootlessness, of motel hopping and finding a home on the road itself. Neither past nor future matter, only now. Neither place of origin nor destination, only here. As with money, movement is everything.

Catalina, always pregnant but never with child, becomes a model of regeneration. She must pop out kids like a vending machine, unconcerned about their upbringing. Yet, like the Ark itself, everything remains entirely potential and, being unfinished, potential always contains doubt, the danger being that it will not be reached. Hence, the crash that blows the system. The frontier they chase like wolves heading for the horizon closes in on them, leaving the ruins of the half-built Ark and Catalina’s first miscarriage in four centuries of reproduction. ‘Why,’ The TEAM ask bluntly, ‘the right to boundless growth?’

All this, of course, without mention of the music, which would satisfy all on its lonesome. Mission Drift has a gig folded into its structure; or, more precisely, an intimate, sultry late-night Las Vegas cabaret. Variously perched at the piano or roaming through the action, Heather Christian, wearing an array of twisted showgirl outfits, plays Miss Atomic: simultaneously emcee and siren. Vocally, she is airy and girlish, woozy with a husky aftertone. It’s like sex and lollipops. Her songs, a fusion of bluesy wails and sky-high gospel, hit you smack in the chest and make your heart soar. At first, they are earthy and soulful, connected to both land and history, but they grow tinnier and shallow with the erosion of culture and countryside. The note of apocalypse never lets off: ‘I think somebody is burning down Las Vegas’.

Surprisingly comprehensible and admirably comprehensive, Mission Drift manages to be 100% gig, 100% theatre and 100% movie all at once. Its plot grips and its texts, almost beat poems, create vivid and textured pictures. Yet they are divorced from action on account of a reflexive minimalism that allows a layer of commentary. Add in the transformative euphoria of the music and the result is the most total piece of theatre in a very long while.


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