Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Promise Land
Transatlantic Love Affair
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Miranda, Flower Drum Song, and The Pink Unicorn


Gregory Parks, Emily Madigan, Avi Aharoni,
and Emily Michaels King

Photo by Nick Schroepfer
Transatlantic Love Affair has applied its unique performance style to a poignant and beautifully presented story of the immigrant experience, fittingly called Promise Land. It was described in advance as a spin on the classic fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, with which it shares several features. In both stories, a brother and sister are sent away by their parents, who are too poor to feed them. The children embark on a frightening journey and believe they have found safe harbor, only to discover that even greater danger is lurking there. It is telling that the show's creators named it Promise and not Promised Land, for the land has not been promised to them. Rather, it is a land where promises are made—and broken.

For those unfamiliar with Transatlantic Love Affair, the company is committed to physical theater, using the human body as the only object on stage. Not only the characters in the play, but all settings and props are either pantomimed or created by ensemble members, as when several kneel and join arms to form the rail of the steam ship from which the immigrants arriving in New York Harbor view the Statue of Liberty, or when actors contort themselves to become machines in a sweat shop, creating their own sound effects as well. Their approach—and the artistry with which they apply it—gives their work a purity and simplicity that deepens the meaning of the work, while delighting with its abundance of imagination. The story and the movements with which it is presented are created by a team of artists, the final performance crystallized by the guidance of co-directors Diogo Lopes and Isabel Nelson.

Sará and Josef are the unfortunate siblings whose parents, distraught at the thought of seeing their children starve, scrape together the money to send them from their unnamed homeland (with a distinct Eastern European feel) to America. They have only the name of Mrs. Jarvis, a woman for whom their mother had done sewing piecework, though they never actually met. Mrs. Jarvis had gone to America some time ago and word was that she had established herself. Surely she would help two wretched children from her homeland, newly arrived to the land of opportunity. There, Sará and Josef would be able to work and save money to enable their parents—if they did not starve first—to join them. Their parents bid them farewell with the words "It will be hard, but it will be worth it."

After Sará and Josef's wrenching farewell, they embark on a grueling journey by land and sea with others seeking a new start, concluding with processing at Ellis Island, though that segment probably understates the dehumanization of that experience. Lost on the array of city streets, they at last locate the boarding house where Mrs. Jarvis is a housekeeper. She had expected them and is prepared to offer them a room until she finds out they have no money to pay. She is about to turn them out, when the boarding house owner, Mr. Thompson, arrives. In what looks like a generous act, Mr. Thompson invites Sará to work off their room and board by assisting Mrs. Jarvis with cleaning and cooking, and he offers Josef a job amid the furnaces and dangerous machinery of his factory. It seems that the children are on their way. They repeat: "It will be hard, but it will be worth it." However, just as Hansel and Gretel learn that the candy house on which they hungrily munch put them in bondage, Sará and Josef learn that in America, all that glitters is not gold.

There is no mention of specific nations or nationalities, but the immigrants do ask one another if they are from the North or the South—finding comfort and solidarity with fellow northerners or southerners. There is a background of atmospheric music, composed and played on cello by music props director Emily Dantuma, and three times in the course of the show, the ensemble joins voices in folk songs that relate to their struggles—one sung in Croatian, one in Yiddish, and one in Czech. Though few if any audience members understand the words to these songs, the feeling of the music unmistakably deepens the feelings of loss, hardship and hope that travel with these characters.

Every member of the wonderfully fluid ensemble plays multiple roles, and takes the form of multiple set pieces, but several stay in character for a significant portion of the play. Avi Aharoni as Josef and Emily Michaels King as Sará especially stand out, both actors creating full characters who are not generic immigrant youth, but this specific boy and girl. They have innate chemistry as siblings, playful and teasing at the start, each bolstering the other when their hopes begin to fade and arguing as siblings do. When Josef brings home his first paycheck, and treats his sister to a new hat, a dinner out, and a kite, their joy at being together warms the theater.

Adelin Phelps and Allison Witham are both core and founding members of TLA. Phelps, usually a warm presence on stage, plays Mrs. Jarvis as an embittered survivor, depicting a steely resolve to hold on to the security she has worked hard to obtain. Witham, as Mr. Thompson, excels in creating a man who is the soul of kindness on the outside and a monster on the inside. Gregory Parks and Emily Madigan are affecting as Josef and Sará's parents. All the ensemble members are splendid as the children's parents, fellow immigrant travelers, strangers on the busy streets of New York, boarding house tenants, and factory workers.

Without question, Promise Land is a timely work, drawing upon the terrible choices people make to leave their home land for untested promises in America; the hardships of that transit by ship, or raft, or airplane, by crawling through tunnels or swimming across a muddy river; and the mixture of welcome, suspicion and deceit that awaits them in their new home. We are now in the midst of a polarizing national debate on how much to welcome and in how much suspicion to hold new arrivals to our land. While Promise Land weighs its sympathies toward the plight of the immigrant, it does not politicize their plight, but portrays it in purely human terms. Josef and Sará are among millions of innocents who, with life no longer viable in their homeland, come to the land of promises with open hearts and hope that those promises are more than empty words.

Promise Land, a Transatlantic Love Affair production, continues at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through February 12, 2017. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. All tickets are $9.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224, or go to www.guthrietheater.org. For information about Transatlantic Love Affair go to transatlanticloveaffair.org.

Co-Directors: Diogo Lopes and Isabel Nelson; Music Director/Composer/Cellist: Emily Dantuma; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura and Michael Wangen; Stage Manager: Mikaela Vogland.

Ensemble: Avi Aharoni, Peyton Dixon, Julia Gay, Emily Madigan, Eric Marinus, Emily Michaels King, Gregory Park, Adelin Phelps, Allison Witham.


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