Architecting @ P.S. 122, New York

cast list
Jessica Almasy, Frank Boyd, Heather Christian, Jill Frutkin, Libby King, Jake Margolin

directed by
Rachel Chavkin
Entering the auditorium of P.S. 122 to be greeted by a country western singer named Melly with an aptitude for small talk and her guitarist accompanist, Josh – the two of them playing in a large, mostly open, space with walls covered in heavy-duty plastic Tyvek wrap – it’s clear that the audience for Architecting, the latest production from Theatre of the Emerging American Moment (or simply “the TEAM”), is in for something different.

On a nearby table, a man is assembling a 3D puzzle version of the Cathedral of Chartres. By the sides of the stage are stacks and stacks of oversized envelopes, stuffed, we will come to learn, with manuscripts from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Margaret “Peggy” Mitchell.
The multimedia production, which utilizes video projection, dance elements, and live musical performance, reaches across time and space, telling an expansive story with a wide-reaching cast of characters.

Once the scene is set, the central plot is revealed. Young architect Carrie Campbell is replacing her late father Steve Campbell in developing Phoenix Meadows, a New Orleans housing venture that’s building homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Upon entering the Oasis, a bar near the development, she meets singer and concerned citizen Melly as well as Henry, who is a former historian, and Peggy Mitchell, all of whom conspire to influence her plans for Phoenix Meadows.

Though the initial scenes of the play, the text of which has been devised by the company in collaboration with a further team of writers, lack the power to suck an audience in off the bat, the piece begins to take flight once the character of Gone with the Wind‘s Scarlett O’Hara, played on-stage by Heather Christian, comes vividly to life at the profane and insistent command of Mitchell’s pen. What’s so fascinating about the TEAM’s approach to their chosen material is their bold decision to intersperse characters from the past and present, both real and imagined, in the service of their chosen theme, the most prominent of which are renewal and resilience.

Throughout, the present-day South is juxtaposed against the fanciful Reconstruction Era imagery of Mitchell’s novel. Besides for Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, Mammy, and several other characters from Gone with the Wind also make brief appearances. Adding an additional dimension to the play is a subplot involving a film remake of Mitchell’s book, its producer attempting at one point to coerce Peggy into signing off on a series of politically correct rewrites to bring the story into the twenty-first century.

Things really take off during the second half of the play when the narrative focuses in more extensively on several of its key characters. While Mitchell speaks out against critiques of her book as racist – eventually presenting a fast-and-loose sequel to Gone with the Wind from beyond the grave entitled The Ballad of Franklin Delmore McKinley, chronicling the journey of fictional black Katrina flood victim McKinley and his fellow New Orleans exiles back to the city that is their home – wannabe film star Caroline Dixon and her newfound boyfriend Josh take a road trip to New Orleans so she can compete in a national search for the next on-screen Scarlett O’Hara.

Though the production touches on a host of topics, from Katrina and urban development to the War in Iraq, the issues at hand never feel tacked-on or forced. An inevitable consequence of the play’s wide-reaching scope, however, is the glossing-over of some characters. While some (Mitchell and Carrie) are developed extensively and given their emotional due, others (Melly and Henry) feel less three-dimensional. Nevertheless, the talented six-person company is uniformly affecting, aided by director Rachel Chavkin and her truly imaginative use of the playing space.

Overall, Architecting – a hugely ambitious undertaking from a young theatre company – is a resounding success. During the nearly three hours of its running time, those who are willing to surrender are taken on a satisfying emotional journey which culminates in an impressive final sequence that pushes Nick Vaughan’s set design to its limit. During the play’s final moments, architect Carrie envisions a Chartres-like cathedral in the open spaces left in the wake of Katrina, a collaborative effort that will reap benefits for all. What’s needed now, she conjectures, is the strength to “give up the ghost and put on flesh.” And that’s exactly what this production attempts to do – give a vivid human face to current events.

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