Promise Land: a universal story of the search for home

In the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, through February 12

Avi Aharoni and Emily Michaels King in Promise Land. Photo by Nick Shroepfer.

Human migration is a timeless effort. People shift, sometimes in great numbers, sometimes as singles or pairs. Transatlantic Love Affair‘s Diogo Lopes decided to tell this story of geographic relocation beginning with the old fairy tale of the Hansel and Gretel. This morphed it into the story of a sister and brother, Sadha and Josef, in their production of Promise Land now at the Guthrie‘s Dowling Studio. 

Hansel and Gretel makes a perfect foundation for the troupe to do what it does best: use movement, mime and well-chosen dialogue to tell an engrossing story. Based as it is on fictional characters, the story is freed of political and geographic specifics and is positioned on the side of displacement, disorientation and determination.

Transatlantic Love Affair’s theatre productions are of a spare and intelligent design without props or scenery. Things are not often spelled out in expository dialogue. Actors speak but they also perform as inanimate objects. Sometimes an actor plays the part of a front door or a factory machine. Sometimes a folk song sung in Croatian by a mother mourning the loss of her children transcends intelligible English.

A hundred choices go into developing works like this. Because the troupe works without a script every turn of the plot must be decided on. Early in the play, we see the family has little or no food to eat because they set the table with glasses only, no plates. Soon after the parents discuss sending their children (beautifully played by Emily Michaels King and Avi Aharoni) to America where they already have a contact. Their children will find work and send money home so they can also emigrate one day.

To experience a TLA performance is to savor moment after moment of dedicated artistry. It also requires the attention of the audience to interpret the story they are being told. When actors line up and stare out across the heads of the audience, we hear the low throb of a cello and realize from the looks on the actors’ faces that they have boarded an ocean liner. Then a sudden crisp wave of their hands tells us that those on board are saying good bye. Next the actors sway in a broad movement as the ship leaves port. Then the actors turn and surprise us with large rolling movements and we come to understand they are depicting the waves on the ocean. This is how audience is engaged in the process of story making.

The boarding house that Sadha and Josef come to in America, like the gingerbread house in the Hansel and Gretel tale, alternates between scary and secure. Their story ebbs and flows as their expectations rise and fall. Kids will be kids and they know how to have a pretty good time whether it’s exploring the ship or a visit to a bakery once they make landfall. But we are never quite sure who is their friend and who will exploit them.

Composer and cellist Emily Dantuma lays down a track of both recorded and live cello music that melds scenes together. At one point a line of Bach concerto music rises above the action and at other times her pizzicato punctuates the pacing. Her composition helps turn one of the better fight scenes in recent years into an explosion.

The story wraps up without a “they lived happily ever after” conclusion. A phrase Sadha and Josef repeat in the show, “It will be hard but it will be worth it,” becomes a catchphrase for the immigrant experience across centuries.

It is worth noting that Promise Land is performed on the Dowling Studio and is part of the Guthrie’s new Level Nine initiative. All tickets are nine dollars.



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