Monday, June 15, 2015

'I and the Village' at Theatre503, 14th June 2015

For cosmopolitan British theatregoers small town America may as well be the surface of the moon. These are places only really familiar to us from movies, television and literature: the last fifty years of pop culture congealing into crappy diners manned by cheery middle-aged waitresses, gas stations with men in greasy overalls, painfully sincere Christians, bored-as-hell teenagers and pudgily overbearing cops - all blissfully skating over dark undercurrents. This is Springfield. It's Twin Peaks. Smallville. Hill Valley. Stepford. Amity Island. South Park.

In I and the Village it's Van Vechten, a nowheresville in Michigan studded with equal amounts of fast food restaurants and churches of all denominations. The town ticks every box that you'd expect, right down to its disaffected outsider heroine. This is Aimee Stright (Chloe Harris), rebellious graffiti artist, wannabe-intellectual rebel, sharp-tongued alternagirl and very much a square peg trying to be forced through a round hole.

In the opening sequence we learn that Aimee has gone on some kind of murderous rampage, shooting her mother dead at their church. A documentary crew has arrived to try and make sense of this, quizzing the town on their opinions of Aimee in an effort to unveil some answers. Along the way we learn about her tempestuous relationship with her mother (Stephanie Schonfield), her mother's creepy boyfriend (David Michaels) and the various judgmental residents of the town that she hates so much.

Named for Mark Chagall's modernist painting of the same name, Silva Semerciyan's play takes a similar approach to reality, truth and humanity - portraying it as a shifting, amorphous sea of ideas, imagery and actions. A non-linear narrative, combined with a small cast playing many roles and a minimalist jigsaw of a set add up to an experience that's tricky to pin down. Though at its core this is a rather straightforward story of teenage rebellion, the approach layers on the mystery - the more we learn about Van Vechten and its residents, the less we realise we know.

That elevates it from merely understanding a troubled teen to trying to understand what makes small town America tick. In 2008, Barack Obama candidly explained that "it's not surprising that [small town Americans] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations". Naturally he was pilloried for this, as politicians who inadvertently speak the truth often are. 

It's this bitterness, frustration and vague dissatisfaction with life that powers I and the Village. Throughout we see various characters seeking enlightenment; be it straightforward Christian delusions of a just cosmos, financial success through pyramid marketing schemes, the feeling of power that comes from firing a really big gun or expressing yourself through art. Though these methods vary in their effectiveness, they all result in failure. What I and the Village eventually concludes is that individual emancipation is all but impossible within a overbearingly consumer-capitalist society. At best you'd have to completely remove yourself from everything you know and love; or strike out in a futile, doomed gesture of defiance.

That I and the Village aims for such a big target could mean it ignores the smaller picture. Fortunately, the excellent lead performance by Chloe Harris ensures that, despite the sociological bent, we genuinely care about Aimee's plight. She's perceptibly different from the people around her; more colourful, smarter and possessed of a unique inner spark. Both Semerciyan and Harris aren't afraid to play up her less attractive features; a short temper, her literary pretensions and her emotional volatility. But despite this she's an easy character to empathise with, giving the play a solid emotional core.

That said, there are moments where the play is a bit too enigmatic for its own good, the minimalist staging aesthetically pleasing, but  mannered. There's a sense that we're gazing into these people's lives from above, examining them like scientists peering over a Petri dish rather than empathising with them. It's more of a quibble than a criticism, but to evaluate these people's lives from a cosy London theatre seat felt a tiny bit judgmental and patronising.

Still, it's a consistently well performed, well staged and above all, interesting piece of theatre - successfully dissecting small town American psychology. Serious thought has gone into dramatic structure and it's relation to scenery, costume, lighting and even props, putting it ahead of the pack on the London stage. You can generally be sure that a trip to Theatre503 will be worthwhile, and fortunately I and the Village does nothing to change that.


I and the Village is at Theatre 503 until July 4th. Tickets here.

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