A century ago, armed with little more than secondary knowledge gleaned from travel guides and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Franz Kafka attempted to write an “American” novel. The manuscript shows its main character repeatedly and thoroughly abused and misled before suddenly jumping to its incomplete and enigmatic final section, “The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma.” Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod explains that it is here, in the “almost limitless” theatre, that “his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand-by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery.” It’s a startling shift from the typical mythologizing of the American dream, a shift through which redemption and reconciliation result not from pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, mastering the landscape, but from being willingly and selflessly consumed by it.
For better or worse, the characters of American Falls are similarly consumed by a place and by dreams, holding out hope for the redemption of parents and the regaining of freedom, by witchery celestial and otherwise. But the nondescript, midwest town of American Falls is not consumed in the vast verdure of nature as much as it is lost in the relative nowhereness that is popular consumer culture. The original script by Catastrophic member Miki Johnson takes great delight in digging through the garbage bin of the American psyche, finding that combination of ephemeral trash that could tell a stranger so much about who we are and how we live without ever actually peaking in through the window.
Johnson’s nonlinear script, a series of monologues, mixes and matches the flat metaphors, the touchstone archetypes, the cringe-inducing cliches that flood the media that flood our lives as if they were placeholders for our true selves. Though this method can at times seem no more inspired than its uninspired sources, moments later it will have you question if that’s not the crux of the matter itself — the insignificance of that tiny piece of plastic we throw away as compared with the incomprehensible vastness of the dump.
With a set that is divided up into five habitats, each specific to a given character, none of whom ever leave the stage, scenic designer Laura Fine Hawkes and lighting designer Kirk Markley have created a deeply rich and immersive visual experience that never ceases to give the impression of a tableau vivant, a pastiched vanitas of Anytown, America. With disarming charm, Carolyn Houston Boone and Ricky Welch respectively fill out their parts as a selfish mother comfortable in her own haggard skin and a Native American spirit-guide to modern consumerism. They balance the shallowness of their stereotypes by sharing surprise when they have the fortune to hit upon something deeper.
The end of the play shows redemption stumbled upon rather than pointedly earned. The tide of forgiveness that releases the characters from their allotted fates seems to reside not in the people themselves so much as in the ether of the environment. Life’s capacity for forgiveness attains a limitlessness in this way, like a TV with enough channels that, even without certain knowledge of what it might be, one has faith that there is indeed something good to watch, or like a country with a landscape so vast that there’s always another chance to escape further inward.
— David A. Feil
May 24-June 9, 2012