Taking inspiration from a speech Robert F. Kennedy delivered in South Dakota about his hopes for healing the nation’s social divisions (“We can start to work together again”), a dynamic young company known as TEAM has fashioned an energetic performance piece in which liberal elitists make nice with some hicks from Kansas. The ensemble’s provocative thoughts on our ideologically divided country’s clash of moral values should provide solid talking points when “Particularly in the Heartland” plays the Edinburgh Festival (which awarded the company its Fringe First Award last year). But sloppy structure and dismal production values could give a black eye to U.S. avant garde’s rep for tech ingenuity.
No need to dwell on the cluttered set, wayward props, closet-shopped costumes and overall lack of technical coordination of this highly athletic but messy production. Discipline is obviously a dirty word in helmer Rachel Chavkin’s playbook, and it’s probably no use crabbing about the physical production.
But content is another matter. There are loads of good ideas in this piece, and the lack of editing leaves them ill-defined and incapable of making a potent impact.
Stripped of the amusingly acrobatic hijinx that constitute the company performance style, the basic story is dynamic on its own offbeat terms. Depending on whose version you buy, either a tornado, an alien invasion or the hand of God has come down on a small farm community in Kansas, setting the scene for a spectacular case of culture shock for both the locals and the invaders.
Mom and Dad Springer have disappeared, leaving their three kids — Todd (Brian Hastert), Sarah (Libby King) and Anna (Kristen Sieh) — frightened and disoriented. But once they crawl out from under the kitchen table, they take heart and determine to carry on their lives according to the system of values by which they were raised.
That means holding onto their religious faith and keeping all the holidays holy, which leads to a succession of wacky scenes in which Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and the Fourth of July are celebrated with youthful enthusiasm and religious piety. But for all their defiance — especially from Sieh, a little dynamo as the bright and willful Anna — the kids are scared and unsure of what to make of all the weird strangers who arrive in town with their alien cultural values.
The foreigners are, indeed, oddities in this heartland community. Tracy Jo (Jill Frutkin), a teenager pregnant with an alien life form, sucks raw eggs. Dorothy (Jessica Almasy), who falls out of a light plane without mussing her business suit, lectures the kids on their Wall Street investment portfolios. But leave it to a dead Kennedy, the assassinated Bobby played with intellectual vigor by Jake Margolin, to tell it like it is. Gazing at the locals in their “I love Jesus” caps, he takes a deep breath and yells, “Jesus Christ, it’s terrifying out here!”
In due time, and after a lot of athletic encounters signifying nothing special, the Springer kids and their alien visitors do, indeed, come to respect one another’s values. But which values and to what purpose remain muddy, specifics being beside the point in this free-for-all.
Meanwhile, some good opportunities to take this piece into deeper territory are passed up. At one point, Todd picks up an umbrella, aims it at RFK and fires it like a rifle — raising hopes that TEAM might tackle the heartland issue of teen violence. But the moment passes, like so many others, with nothing of substance coming of it — except, of course, for the fun that everyone in this talented if undisciplined troupe seems to be having.
Maybe they’ll buy it in Edinburgh.