The West

Mission statement
Mission statement

Mission Drift
February 22-March 2
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre

You can imagine the look of horror on singer/songwriter Heather Christian's face when director Rachel Chavkin, from the genre-defying New York theatre group The TEAM, asked her to write a musical about the history of American capitalism.

"She said 'Would you like to write a musical theatre show about American capitalism?' 'OK, you want me to write a musical about capitalism. That might be impossible'," Christian says during a short visit to Perth. "But I said yes because I love The TEAM's work and I think they are astonishing geniuses."

The result is Mission Drift, a rollicking musical which dissects the soul of the American Dream over a span of more than 400 years from the Dutch settlement of New York to the foundation of modern-day Las Vegas.

As well as helping elevate a potentially dry drama about money, frontier, ambition and desire with her treacle-laced blues/gospel voice, Christian composed the score to the march of money across the continent.

Her music draws on gospel, circus, folk, jazz and the blues as it propels the journey of the time-travelling picaresque couple Catalina and Joris Rapalje, dubbed the "American Adam and Eve", who arrive in New Amsterdam in search of a new life in the New World. Their mythical story continues over the centuries as they continue to head west until it collides with the tale of a Las Vegas cocktail waitress who is sacked during the 2008 financial crisis.

In the show, opening exclusively in Perth next month, Christian plays Miss Atomic, a ferocious storyteller/singer inspired by the 1950s Nevada A-bomb beauty pageants. A symbol of creation and destruction, bankruptcy and bonanza, she narrates the interlocking stories as they unfurl as if driven by a fervent biblical inevitability.

"The reasons all these songs turned out to be gospel songs is originally the play was supposed to have all these evangelical Christian elements," Christian says. "It ended up falling by the wayside in the script but parts of it remain there in the music."

Chavkin says the seemingly disparate strands - "musical" and "political theatre" - coalesced when she started talking to Christian about the proposed project.

"Very often you follow intuition at the early stages of a work and somehow the pieces became inextricably linked," Chavkin says over the phone from New York. "Heather's music has this incredible rolling, epic dramaturgical build through nearly every one of her songs from one voice to multiple voices. It really was a tremendous back and forth between her and the company as the piece evolved."

Mission Drift was developed over 21{Zcaron}2 years as the fallout from the 2008 global financial crisis spread across the US. The show grew out of Architecting, another dramatic treatise on American nation-building (which portrayed Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara as capitalist gods) and was heavily influenced by the concept of "disaster-capitalism" in The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.

As its acronymic name suggests The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) devises plays that examine current affairs through an athletic, sensory blend of visual art, film, dance, music and drama described as Gertrude Stein meets MTV.

Co-founded by Chavkin in 2004, The TEAM's work is in the vein of other avant garde New York theatre companies the Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service and the Nature Theater of Oklahoma.

"The thing that I am happy to say about our work is also the thing that can make it challenging to describe," Chavkin says.

"It has elements of dance, elements of a rock concert, certainly a core theatrical story. I think anyone who is interested in just a really good tale will find that in Mission Drift but also people interested in politics and finding space to think about contemporary world events.

"It is also deeply funny. It is operating very happily on a number of different levels."

Mission Drift has been referred to as a 21st century cousin of the Brecht-Weill masterwork The Threepenny Opera (another Perth Festival exclusive), which also critiqued capitalism in musical form. "I know that Rachel and The TEAM love Brechtian concepts and they have aimed towards making a piece that was smart enough to stand up to that kind of work," Christian says.

Fundamental to Mission Drift's focus is Las Vegas, the Luna Park face of American capitalism and the epicentre of the sub-prime real estate bubble that burst in so many faces. The TEAM spent a month-long residency there interviewing people: tiger trainers, casino staff, strippers, hedge fund dealers, union organisers, and a cancer victim at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Paradise, Nevada. That was where the burlesque character of Miss Atomic was born, based on the 1950s beauty parades that symbolised the bizarre love affair Las Vegas had with the atomic bomb.

"Las Vegas is a living metaphor for exactly what people moved to America and the New World to do in the first place," Christian says.

"Las Vegas is a microcosm. It is a miracle in the desert. It is big and gaudy and is about as American as anything can be in America. It is everything that we are infamously good at and everything that we are nasty at. It is a hyperbolisation of everything that we are."

Chavkin says Las Vegas left an extraordinary mark on The TEAM players, as well as on the show that resulted from their time there.

"Vegas was the fastest-growing city in America at the turn of the millennium; it just exploded through the 90s and 2000s," she says. "It went through this incredible renaissance and the day after the stock market collapse, literally cranes just froze and there were these gouges along Las Vegas Boulevard.

"It was very painful being in Las Vegas and speaking to the people there. I remember talking to a third-generation Las Vegan, who are quite rare, who said 'We love growth, we just grew too fast'.

"That defines American capitalism - that expectation of exponential growth with no boundaries and, of course, eventually the frontier runs out."

The West Australian

Popular videos

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West