Ash Land - well deserved standing ovation. Friggin' brilliant. So detailed, human, simple and lovely. This is why I love theater #mnfringe
"If you need anything, I'll always be here."
It is hard for me to write about the work of the theater company Transatlantic Love Affair, and their new Fringe production Ash Land, without sounding like a lovesick teenager. If you've seen either of their previous two Fringe shows - Ballad of the Pale Fisherman, and Red Resurrected - you know they put on a great show, and you should go and see Ash Land right away. If you haven't seen them yet but have heard all sorts of wonderful things said about them, let me reassure you that the wonderful things are all true. If you haven't seen them, or heard about them, let me simply say - Go. See Ash Land.
"In these dry times, some men see nothing but dust and despair."
Ash Land reminds me why I love theater. Ash Land reminds me why I do theater. Any audience member or theater artist who needs to be reminded, go see Ash Land. It will renew your faith in live performance.
"There isn't any work. The rain has stopped."
How? For starters Ash Land takes eight barefoot actors and one man playing a slide guitar (Harper Zwicky) and creates an entire world. No set, no props, everyone gets a single simple costume (kudos to Anna Reichert), and that's it. I touched on this in my commentary on their Fringe-For-All preview. The work of Transatlantic Love Affair fully engages the audience's imagination. It's ensemble created work of the highest order, guided here by co-artistic director Diogo Lopes.
"Every time you walk through that door, you bring a piece of your mother with you. And it's killing me."
Just like Ballad and Red, Ash Land takes an old story as a foundation and opens it up making it new again. Here, it's Cinderella. No glass slippers (though there is a rich people's party which a young farm girl invades and later escapes, followed by the good-hearted son of the powerful owner of the local bank). No talking animals, no pumpkin coach (though the cast does create an old model car onstage with their bodies, complete with windshield wipers). No fairy godmother (though the spirit of the farm girl's dead mother reappears in various guises just when the girl needs her most). If you know Cinderella (Disney or French fairy tale version), the resonances are there. If you don't, the story is completely enchanting on its own terms.
"I buried my wife here. My daughter was born here. I don't care if I don't own it. This is my land."
When Ellie (Adelin Phelps) and her father (Derek Lee Miller) are bereft with grief at the loss of their mother and wife (Isabel Nelson), the wife's sister Abigail (Heather Bunch) comes to help run the drought-plagued family farm to keep it from going under. Times are bad, and though the banker's son James (Willie Gambucci) makes a case for the downtrodden farmers to keep their land till the rains come again and times get better, James' father the bank owner (Eric Nelson) sees another opportunity. If the rich folk of the area buy up the farmers' land at rock bottom prices now, when the rains come again, the rich will reap the real harvest and massive profits. Abigail plans to sell the family farm out from under Ellie and her father, but Ellie intercepts the invitation to the banker's party, and goes in her aunt's place.
"Farming. It's more than just work to us. It's everything we are."
A simple plot synopsis can never convey the simple joys of watching this story unfold before your eyes. You don't just get to know the characters, you get to know the land, their home, and so much more. Even though there isn't a stick of furniture in sight, you always know exactly where you are. The cast creates a field of wheat that flourishes, dies and is reborn. The cast creates a dust storm, and later the first drops of a long awaited rain that turns into a storm of a different kind. The cast creates the porch and creaking screen door of the farmhouse, and the wrought iron gate and tree-lined drive of the wealthy banker's estate.
"You think you're building something?!"
Sometimes you don't realize where you are at first, and then slowly have it revealed to you. For instance, Ellie goes up into what turns out to be the attic, looking for one of her mother's old dresses to dress up for the banker's party. Two actors turn out to be a big trunk, and a blanket resting on top of it. The spirit of Ellie's mother is beside her the whole time, helping her into the dress. Two other actors stand nearby, and when their locked arms turn, it becomes clear they are a mirror. Ellie stands on one side, and sees her smiling mother wearing the same dress in the reflection. It's a magical and very touching moment.
"Ellie, I ever tell you how much I hate potatoes?"
Ash Land is filled with many such moments. The actors are in a constant state of transformation, building a story around the central characters. Each of the characters is complex and rich, so that by the time the story draws to its close, it is enormously satisfying to see second chances and budding young love spring from the dry soil of a community's grief. That standing ovation they got opening night is well-deserved, and the first of many. (Blogger note - I'm crying as I write this. Moments from the show just
crept up into my consciousness again along with some of these lines of
dialogue and the singing and it still wrecks me. I didn't cry when I
watched it, but I'm crying now. Weird. It's really
beautiful work. This one's going to follow me around for a while. The best ones always do.)
"I'm not leaving if you're not leaving."
I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you see only two Fringe shows this year, one of them should be Ash Land.
"This world will lose its motion, love, should I prove false to thee."
Also, if you didn't catch the expanded version of Ballad of the Pale Fisherman at Illusion earlier this year, it's being remounted at the Jon Hassler Theater in late August. An expanded version of Red Resurrected will be debuting at Illusion Theater again early next year. See them if you need a good theater fix until next Fringe.
5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended