nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
September 10, 2011
On arriving at HERE, you are handed a manila folder, golf pencil, and form N-390, your application for naturalization in the utopian nation of Lush Valley. What better way to spend a brisk autumn evening than filling out copious amounts of paperwork? Created by HERE artistic director Kristin Marting with writers Robert Lyons and Qui Nguyen through an extensive process of workshops and public discussion, Lush Valley is set in a fictional government office where eight immigration officials process the audience's applications for citizenship. Lush Valley is an idealistic democracy, built around virtues such as Freedom, Happiness, and Equality. Through interviews, group discussions, and lectures the audience is asked to engage with these nationalist values and justify their candidacy for citizenship, which is either awarded or not at the end of the evening. Mixed throughout the bureaucratic busywork and patriotic pageantry are abstract movement pieces and scenes of water cooler drama between the office staff.
Across the board Lush Valley's design demonstrates an admirable attention to detail. Christopher Kuhl's lighting deftly leaps between soul-numbing fluorescents and more aggressively theatrical lighting for the surreal dance numbers. In concert with Clint Ramos's sterile slate gray room, criss-crossed by a byzantine lattice of tape lines, they have created a pitch-perfect bureaucratic limbo, capable at any moment of erupting into an expressive, human space. Tal Yarden's video design similarly alternates between corporately slick promotional interviews and jarring montage when the controlled veneer slips.
Perhaps most impressive are the seamless logistics of audience-wrangling. The bureaucrats of Lush Valley's Department of Hope and Prosperity are with a light touch able to smoothly direct traffic and attention to keep the evening's activities painlessly flowing. As a purely formal exercise in creating a theatrical environment with guided channels of audience agency, Lush Valley is incredibly effective. It can be easily contextualized alongside other contemporary open works of controlled chaos such as Sleep No More or the recent pieces of Woodshed Collective. However, in contrast to Sleep No More's voyeuristic anonymity, Lush Valley creates a surprising sense of community in its audience. Between group discussions on the country's core values, required character reference forms, and generally milling around and standing on lines together, the audience receives a huge amount of face time with one another. At a moment late in the show when select people were taken aside for brief, live-projected interviews, a sense of genuine warmth and familiarity pervaded the room as we watched our peers answer basic questions about their beliefs. Moreover, this led to some of the evening's most unexpectedly eloquent text, like a woman simply listing everything growing in her garden. Marting and her team strike an admirable balance between scripted material and providing a flexible framework from which these sorts of quiet and lovely moments can emerge.
In a climate dominated by stultifying partisanship and political nihilism, Lush Valley presents a refreshingly earnest examination of patriotism. At its most evocative, the piece is able to spark genuine discourse with its audience, such as an overheard think tank discussion about the distinction between religious devotion and fanaticism. Equally instructive, however, are the moments when lectures on Lush Valley's core values like Freedom and Honor come across as flaccid strings of banal platitudes. A group discussion on Equality mostly generated uncomfortable silence filled by plucking a few low-hanging snipes at capitalism. These ostensibly core tenets of our national identity are perhaps so thoroughly ingrained in our collective psyche as to exist in something of an intellectual blind spot, wherein we lack an adequate vocabulary with which to engage them critically. Though less enjoyable at the time, those moments when Lush Valley's idealism fell flat were perhaps its most retrospectively illuminating.
Intellectual engagement aside, Lush Valley largely fails to evoke much of a visceral reaction from its audience. The occasional hints of sinister undercurrents never pan out into anything substantial, and the interpersonal drama feels hackneyed, cursorily revolving around a few obvious hot button issues like abortion and head scarves without delving particularly deeply. Even the central action of applying for citizenship ultimately proves somewhat incidental. Regardless, at a moment of political and economic disarray, it is heartening to see such a team of downtown theater heavyweights tackling the subject of nationalism so directly, if somewhat shallowly.