Wednesday 16 August 2006

Particularly in the Heartland

Traverse, Edinburgh

Rapture is upon us. Or maybe a tornado; it depends how you like to look at these things. In any case, the Springer children’s parents are missing, presumed lifted up into Heaven by God Almighty Himself. Here we are then, in Kansas, with three kids brought up on Biblical literalism and the notorious Left Behind books, and desperately trying to make sense of their situation.

New York-based company the TEAM made a splash at last year’s Fringe, with two fantasically energetic shows that announced the group as the voice, complete with comical accent, of young America. Give Up! Start Over! In the Darkest of Times I Look to Richard Nixon for Hope was a surreal investigation of the mediation of reality through television, while A Thousand Natural Shocks gave us the young characters from Hamlet pondering the existential crisis of a new generation. Particularly in the Heartland continues in a similar vein, using the Springer children as a way in to an exploration of the American soul.

Accordingly, the heartland kids are joined by representatives of another America: Tracey Jo, an unmarried pregnant girl who claims to be an alien, Dorothy, a smart, New York finance professional who fell out of a plane - the only way someone of her background gets to visit one of the ‘fly-over states’ - and, er, Robert F Kennedy, who is of course long-dead. What at first threatens to be an anarchic mess of confused messages and ideas quickly resolves itself into a thoughtful and entertaining take on an aspect of America too often dismissed as hopelessly unsophisticated (presumably the name Springer is no accident). Brian Hastert and the show-stealing Kirsten Sieh are especially compelling as the two younger children Todd and Anna, drawing us into their world and making us like it.

Already, some critics have congratulated the TEAM for not condescending to the people of the heartland; the religious, Bush-voting masses of Middle America. But this assumes that the TEAM, and by implication their audience (not least the critics), are in a position to condescend. What the show demonstrates is that nobody has all the answers. What does liberal, blue state America have to offer these people but the ghost of Bobby Kennedy? The undead, but far from red-blooded promise of a better America? A recycled Al Gore? No wonder people turn to the original Resurrection.

And no wonder would-be progressive politicians prefer to talk about statistics. Our financial high-flier - who, appropriately enough, has crashed - lectures the kids on economics, rehearsing the familiar, post-2004 election insistence that these people don’t know their own interests. (The show’s title comes from a New York Times article on the deleterious effects of President Bush’s reforms to the bankruptcy laws, ‘particularly in the heartland’.) The portrayal of the people of the heartland as hapless dupes, however, is of course more than a little patronising.

When the tension between the credulous children and their worldly guests comes to a head, little Anna turns on Dorothy, seething with a sense of injustice: ‘You don’t know anything about us. You just write books about us.’ Indeed. The most obvious book in question is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, which laments the political potency of right-wing ‘values’ - as opposed to… uh, well, you know, whatever it is we believe in - and has been the focus of much debate among liberals in the US and beyond. Why don’t these people get it?

In contrast, Particularly in the Heartland is less a hand-wringing investigation of what’s wrong with ‘these people’ than an honest exploration of what young Americans want, any young Americans. Anna wants to be president, Todd wants to join the army, and Sarah seems to be a lesbian. Well, it’s a start. Certainly it’s a better start than lampooning them for their odd beliefs. Their upbringing has been peculiar by deracinated liberal standards, but it has at least equipped the Springer kids with a wealth of cultural resources, expressed in a quasi-religious respect for American holidays, including a Christmas that owes more to Dickens than the Gospels (genuinely ‘fundamentalist’ Christians don’t celebrate this pagan festival at all).

Amid the soullessness of secular capitalism, the Springer children live a life rich in meaning, saturated with the stuff. And what sets Particularly in the Heartland apart from the standard liberal critique of religious America, whether in the form of polemic like Thomas Frank’s or self-congratulatory ‘satire’, is that the show does not set out to disillusion. Its attitude is instead one of wonder and empathy. When Dorothy discovers that Todd really believes the Bible is fact, she is delighted as much as appalled. The humanist bromide that we can find meaning in culture just doesn’t cut it, because we don’t believe that culture matters in the way people believe religion matters; culture is divorced from real life, one step removed. Or at least it is most of the time.

The greatest achievement of this show is its bridging of that gap. It gives us the sense, however fleeting, that the future is both meaningful and bright. The TEAM’s own energy and creativity are infectious and intoxicating: they give us hope. As the audience enters, the six performers sing American traditional songs, and encourage the audience to join in ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (probably more fun after a few drinks than at the morning performance I attended). And the later musical interludes are highlights of the show, with the group bursting into dance routines like the kids of FAME, only somehow for real. The group’s name stands for the Theater of the Emerging American Moment, and that feels right. Particularly in the Heartland is not political theatre, and does not offer political solutions, but it does encourage the belief that such things are not beyond us. Happy New Year. It just might be.

Till 27 August 2006. Then at BAC, London, from 1 till 17 September.

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