by Morgan Lindsey Tachco · May 31, 2015
The Homesteading movement in the United States experienced an insurgence in the 1960’s & 70’s, sending thousands of (predominantly white, recovering middle class) people “back to the land.” Homesteads and communes popped up all over the US. Many sprang from a religious or spiritual foundation. All were created by people drawn to a life that promised simplicity in off-grid, communally sufficient living. Arguably, this movement hasn’t ceased and perhaps has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years.
What a fascinating display of privilege to live precisely by one's own choosing. To move through life guided by the belief that the best means of contributing to society is to recede from it, and that choices made by you and your commune are paramount. How does one, or many ‘ones’ continue to evolve in an existence so perfectly curated? What happens to the nuance of being human? As exhausting, infuriating and, at times downright degrading that society at large can be, evolution comes to us all - whether we are running or sitting still. Once a self-made micro society begins to crumble, what happens to the humans inside of it?
This is the setting for Rady&Bloom's The Upper Room, playing through June 12 at The New Ohio Theatre. A once active family-run homestead on an island off the coast of Maine is being swallowed by the sea. The commune is held down by three sisters born there, rounded out by six others that have found their way there for various individual reasons. The Upper Room of the farmhouse serves as the communal space they gather in to meditate, share meals and, eventually, discuss their future as they are forced to renegotiate their relationship with the surroundings that once sustained them. They are being actively swallowed by the changing earth and nostalgia for a simple successful past, all while mourning a lost future.
Although billed as a play, The Upper Room's story is driven by an original score, written and mostly performed by the incredible Catherine Brookman. Portraying the eldest sister, Hannah, Brookman drives the piece with compositions that pull inspiration from indie folk and rock, with a bit of funk and sea shanty thrown in. Her voice is astounding; at once bellowing like a horn and ringing like a bell. She is in full control here - her voice encompasses her body as well as the space, and guides the story like a foghorn.
Fortunately, Brookman's talents extend well past an understanding of her strengths and the ability to showcase them. She helps provide the woody and oceanic landscape for the very talented ensemble to play in, creating intricate harmonies that float above the exciting rhythm that drives the piece. The design and staging are as impressive - beautiful lighting design by Jay Ryan and staging by Directors Jeremy Bloom and Brian Rady assisted by Brandon Powers ensure that the space feels like a shrinking island, forcing an imminent evolution.
All beautiful theatricality notwithstanding, there are a few complications. The plot takes awhile to reveal itself, and some character development misses the mark. There are times as we’re meeting the commune members - inherently eccentric and self-involved - where we’re not sure whose joke we’re in on, if anyone’s. With such rich music to work with and active theatrical imaginations, I understand the tendency to run with it at the expense of these points, and the culmination eases any rocky moments from the start. I can see this piece only solidifying as the ensemble has more time to play together. It won’t be long before they embody the feeling that so many of us long for: the privilege of being part of a tribe.
Throughout this piece I found myself saying, “Only in New York, only downtown, how fortunate we are to be here.” So head over to the New Ohio and witness it for yourself. This quintessential downtown theatre piece will prove to be an evolution most fascinating, exciting, and entertaining to experience.