Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
I have been a fan of Transatlantic Love Affair and found each of the seven productions I have reviewed to be worthy of praise. While that praise stems from the company's strengths cited above, the core of their success is that their artistry, technique and invention have all been in support of a strong story, be it the mythology of the selkie (Ballad of the Pale Fisherman, a variant of Cinderella set in the Dust Bowl (Ashland), the ache of an immigrant family in a strange land (Promise Land), or a rollicking spoof of pirates on the high seas (Privateer).
Conceived and directed by company co-founder Isabel Nelson, After the Fires shares with its predecessors their brand of physical theater, inventive presentation, and grace of execution. However, the story at its core feels slight and murky. It is a futuristic tale that fails to say anything cogent about life in the present. Lacking a compelling narrative, all of Transatlantic Love Affair's lovely creative efforts feel hollow, a beautiful casing surrounding a void.
After the Fires takes place at an unspecified future time after a cataclysm has brought down civilization (there are references to towering walls of the distant past that collapsed long ago). A group of descendants of the survivors have established a structure of roles and rituals that provides order to their lives. Two figures of great importance are the Keeper of the Well and the Keeper of the Clay: a well, to ensure there is water to drink; and clay, to form vessels to store that water. Young Wren and Robin are at the fledgling stage, training to someday take the mantle as keepers of the well and clay, respectively. Wren and Clay are playful youth, in many ways like youth today, but also eager to take their place in their community, which is celebrated with a ritualistic "marking" ceremony.
Once they shared their space with others known as the Healers, who cured the sick in exchange for songs and stories. When the songs and stories stopped, the Healers left for the Green, a verdant place where things grow in abundance. Now a disease is spreading across the community, with spartan funeral ceremonies held for its victims. Wren and Robin are sent out to find the Green and to beseech the Healers to help restore them to health.
Little about this narrative feels compelling, and much of it feels arbitrary. For example, why did the songs and stories stop? Why, at this particular moment, do the Keepers of Clay and of the Well believe the Healers will help? The end seems to do nothing to resolve the concerns broached at the start of the play, with little sense of whether or not the enormous risks taken by Wren and Robin made any difference at all.
Yet, there are sequences so well executed that they prompt joy, such as Wren and Robin playfully splashing each other in a stream of water, followed by the two resuming their trek and producing the sucking sounds of their feet separating from the muddy ground. The sequence is delightfully realized by director Nelson. It also helps tremendously that two wonderful actors inhabit the roles, Vinecia Coleman as Wren and Allison Witham as Robin. In her training to become Keeper of the Well, Robin learns to tell stories, and throughout the play she comforts Wren with fanciful tales. Witham displays a mastery for bold-faced yarn-spinning, and Coleman captures the open eagerness of those who want to receive solace. As Robin tells Wren when Wren questions a story's truth, a "story may or may not be, but if it gives people hope, it is important."
Scenes like these are rewarding in themselves, so it can be fairly said that After the Fires offers an array of ingratiating scenes and images, which may be enough for some audience members. For me, these scenes serve as assurances that Transatlantic Love Affair has not lost its touch for creating and staging beautiful, inventive theater, and for capturing powerful ideas, but does not rescue this particular production from the weight of an uninspired, unclear narrative.
In addition to stellar work by Vinecia Coleman and Allison Witham, company members Derek Lee Miller and Gracie Anderson are impressive as the stoical Keeper of the Clay and the more intuitive Keeper of the Well, respectively. Domino D'Lorion and Boo Segersin complete the acting ensemble. All six actors do fine work creating stage imagesencroaching trees, or tall grasses wavering in the breezein the style of Transatlantic Love Affair, but aside from Coleman's Wren and Witham's Robin, After the Fires offers little call to develop characters.
Another hallmark of Transatlantic Love Affair's work is an original musical accompaniment performed live. Cellist Emily Dantuma composed and performs a soundscape, adding color and tone to After the Fires. Barry Browning's lighting skillfully illuminates the joys and the sorrows experienced by the community, and the highs and lows of Wren and Robin's trek in search of the Healers.
I have full confidence that Transatlantic Love Affair will be back with another original work that uses the treasure trove of techniques and imagination that have driven all of their past work, employed to tell a compelling story that holds us in its thrall. After the Fires offers just a hint of how moving and engaging this indispensable company can be. It can serve as an introduction to their work for those unfamiliar with it, and to satisfy the cravings of fans who have been waiting for new work since The Devout a full year ago.
After the Fires , by Transatlantic Love Affair, runs through February 22, 2020, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $17.00 - $30.00. For tickets and information, call 612-339-4944 or go to illusiontheater.org.
Created by: The Ensemble; Conceived and Directed by: Isabel Nelson; Assistant Director: Eric Marinus; Lighting Design: Barry Browning; Original Music: Emily Dantuma; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Andre Johnson Jr.
Cast: Gracie Anderson, Vinecia Coleman, Domino D'Lorion, Derek Lee Miller, Boo Segersin, Allison Witham; Cello: Emily Dantuma.