Ash Land, the third gorgeous production by local group Transatlantic Love Affair, has blown onto the stage of the Illusion Theater and it’s absolutely in your best interest to go see it before it drifts drifts away on February 22nd. The production is based loosely on the story of Cinderella set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Unlike most stories about the Dust Bowl, though, this does not center on the atmospheric disaster. It’s a love story, several times over—love of work, love of the land, of people, and the grief when those things are ripped from you.
The remarkable experience of seeing a Transatlantic Love Affair performance begins with the first breath of the company. As an ensemble, they use that breath and the whole of their bodies to create not just the scenery of a farm house or a bank, but whole lush fields of grain swaying in a summer breeze that transform into a wasteland of blowing dust. They create a whistling, incessant wind that haunts the Stone family as they must endure death and destruction all around them, until their farm is on the brink of collapse. Bank president William Crane is eager for that collapse, encouraging those who are still well off to buy up the dying plots of land for later profit, leaving the farmers and workers to fend for themselves. The story doesn’t break any new ground, but that’s almost a secondary concern for me in a production that pours so much energy into physically creating its environment.
Ash Land has plenty of recognizable pieces of the Cinderella story, but isn’t married to it at all, thanks largely to the intensely collaborative nature of the company. Fairy tales have been central to all of the company’s productions, including their previous The Ballad of the Pale Fisherman and Red, Resurrected. The casts’ emotional connections are obvious, but their imaginative and physical cooperation is what makes their shows so engrossing. They they work together to form furniture, water pumps, screen doors that squeak and slam and the never ending wind. The fact that they have nothing but the connections between themselves to do this means that the audience must collaborate as well. It’s not the passive experience of seeing a fully formed picture on a stage, it’s an intense suggestion that appeals to all the senses and is completed, differently, by every audience member. Like the folk tales that move through people over generations, changing and growing, so does the story of the Stone family and the town of Ash Land move through the company and find new life in each viewer.
Transatlantic Love Affair has hit on an incredible way of telling stories and seem totally committed to continuing with their process. At this point I don’t even have to hear what the next show is about, I’m already on board knowing that they’re the ones delivering it. I do hope to see them continue to expand though, to find a way to keep pushing the limit of what they can do with their bodies so that they don’t fall into the trap of relying on any kind of schtick. Because, as they prove again in this production, they absolutely have the ability to breathe fresh life into any story they wish.
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