600 Highwaymen’s This Great Country, a commission for this year's Fusebox Festival, is billed as a collision with Arthur Miller’s famous tragedy Death of a Salesman. In truth, it’s less a collision and more an unorthodox staging of the script in the 4,000 square foot Lucky Lady Bingo hall at I35 and East 12th. Confused by the vague wording of the summary, I expected a piece that took the original play as a jumping off point, rather than being the point itself.
As a site-specific revival of the classic, This Great Country takes inspiration from the rundown grime of the bingo hall. The fluorescent lights stay on for the entire first act, and all the costumes blend into the neutral walls and linoleum. Death of a Salesman is about the erosion of the American dream, among other things, and everyone “onstage” looks like they gave up chasing it a while ago.
As a site-specific revival of the classic, This Great Country takes inspiration from the rundown grime of the bingo hall.
The audience sits in traditional rows of chairs on one side of the hall and watches the action unfold on a demarcated “stage.” This made the bingo hall feel more like a traditional theater space, but it also seemed like something of a missed opportunity for the show to engage with the audience in a more intimate way.
The space was so big that there were a number of ways that the show could have utilized it, and incorporated the audience as a part of that. The production was at its best when it was filling the whole bingo hall with all seventeen actors’ bodies or voices. The movement pieces and choral moments were lovely, and highlighted the interdependence of all the characters.
There weren’t really enough of those moments, though. Often, there were just two to four actors in the middle, talking to one another, with other actors sitting at bingo tables on either side of them. It was easy to lose focus because of the sheer amount of under-utilized space. The second act expanded into an upstage room visible behind a bank of windows, however, and the production took on more depth.
As far as performances of Death of a Salesman go, 600 Highwaymen obviously made some very big stylistic choices. The most obvious was that, from the beginning of the play, the actors were delivering incredibly stilted, non-naturalistic dialogue and movement. At first, this was interesting, and a clever deconstruction of the script: it’s such a powerful, well-known story, it made one wonder if the spoken words alone, without the traditional inflection, would hold the same amount of weight.
But as the play went on, the actors slipped in and out of this performance mode and it was unclear if this was a deliberate choice — to be naturalistic in some scenes and less so in others — or if the actors couldn’t resist sinking their teeth into the dialogue a little bit. It’s frustrating, as an audience member, when you’re watching a performance that’s seemingly attempting to tell you something very deliberate, but which isn’t consistent enough to make it clear precisely what that is.
Its theme of losing the American dream feels very relevant today, and 600 Highwaymen made the wise decision to set the story in the most recent recession era.
There were other interesting decisions. The production used multiple actors to play several of the characters, including children (who gracefully handled the complex material). This makes the scene where Willie Loman — the titular salesman — is fired by his much younger boss especially fascinating to watch: The executive is played by a ten year old. By the time Willie delivers the line, “I’m not a dime a dozen,” it’s clear that’s exactly what he actually is.
It’s easy to see why a remount of Death of a Salesman would be so appealing right now. Its theme of losing the American dream feels very relevant today, and 600 Highwaymen made the wise decision to set the story in the most recent recession era. It obviously resonated powerfully for some audience members. But deconstructing the story also takes much of the emotional heft out of it.
You can do all sorts of interesting deconstruction of a classic, but you run the risk of losing what made that classic so powerful in the first place.
This Great Country is also playing May 4th and 6th. Visit the Fusebox website for info and tickets.