Under the intense direction of Marianne Weems, the Builders Association burnishes its reputation for innovation with House/Divided, which played briefly (through Oct. 27) at BAM as part of the 30th Next Wave Festival. A spectacular multimedia event more than a play, the show takes on the current housing crisis by combining two major elements: a recap of modern history, sometimes dramatized and sometimes word-for-word; and a stroboscopic portrayal of scenes from John Steinbeck’s great dustbowl classic The Grapes of Wrath.
The star of the show is the production, particularly the set and projections. The former is defined by an actual foreclosed house which was broken up and transported to the Brooklyn theater in pieces, then rejiggered and partly reconstructed into movable elements that combine to serve as the Joads’ house, workers’ shacks, the Platonic ideal of a basic American home, and the multi-faceted backdrop for a dazzling variety of projections both recorded and live.
With all its fast-moving technology, the show slows at times, mostly during sequences of recorded Grapes of Wrath narration when it lapses out of its predominant and crackling “show” mode into a bland “tell” one. Perhaps these extended breaks were necessary for behind-the-scenes changeovers; the complications of the mechanics of a show like this are beyond my capacity to imagine.
But for most of its length (a long single act) House/Divided is a quickly moving tour de force. The Steinbeck-inspired portions don’t fuse entirely smoothly into the modern scenes, at least not until near the end, but that fact gets mostly lost in the motion of the play. Lights, sounds, images, a hand-cranked reel-to-reel tape player, a live onstage DJ, affecting songs, humor, and Rosasharn, all brought to us with astounding effects.
And then there’s the script, by Moe Angelos and James Gibbs, encompassing real Wall Street statements and dialogue along with fictional characters. A Countrywide employee with doubts about the propriety of her company’s high-risk mortgages is cut off by her boss without satisfaction: “I’m not quite sure that some of these people…” And who owns the mortgages now anyway? (In a projection from the John Ford movie of Grapes of Wrath: “And who’s the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company?” “It ain’t nobody. It’s a company.”)
Machine-like Wall Street traders banter over money, but make jokes too, while a real stock ticker full of green quotes suddenly turns red when the 2008 crash occurs. When a lone green indicator appears just when the text talks of tiny shoots of grass growing between the stones, it may not mean prosperity’s right around the corner but it does put a final period on the Builders Association’s crystal-clear statement that they’re among the masters of ultra-modern theater.