NEW YORK — Marianne Weems, cofounder and artistic director of the Builders Association, has long been averse to conventional kitchen-sink realism. Since her experimental theater company’s seminal 1994 production of Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” in which a three-story house was gradually broken apart and dismantled on stage, Weems and her Obie Award-winning group have been pushing the boundaries of the theatrical form — enveloping audiences in a multimedia-saturated milieu that blends flickering video projections, sophisticated sound design, innovative architecture, and stylized performance.
“A lot of theater doesn’t really speak to me, because it’s not an accurate frame for the world that we live in,” Weems says over the phone from Pittsburgh, where she leads the graduate directing program at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. “People very rarely sit in a room today with no media and just focus on one conversation at a kitchen sink. That kind of theater is very dated in a way that continually reinforces its irrelevance.
“Instead, we like to look at this contemporary, chaotic, multivalent world that we live in and pull things out of it to put on stage — taking hot point moments in contemporary culture, social and political moments, and then staging them in a way that creates new meaning.”
Indeed, the New York-based Builders Association has often been ahead of the curve in anticipating the shifting zeitgeist. “Alladeen,” which debuted in 2003, explored cultural collision in a globalized world of international call centers where Indian operators are trained to “pass” as Americans. “Super Vision,” first staged in 2005, grappled with the evolving nature of privacy in a world of constant electronic communications and limitless data storage, predicting the current debate over intrusive government surveillance.
“House/Divided,” which ArtsEmerson is bringing to the Cutler Majestic Theatre Jan. 30 through Feb. 2, explores the housing foreclosure crisis using John Steinbeck’s classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath” as a jumping-off point. It weaves the narrative of the Depression-era Joad family with contemporary stories of people displaced by the still-evolving housing and mortgage catastrophe. The multimedia piece, which premiered at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts and was later staged at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, features a haunting artifact from the economic crisis at the center of the stage: a two-story house reassembled from an actual foreclosed home in Columbus, Ohio.
“House/Divided” traces the migrant journey of the displaced Joads from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to the farmlands of California. Haunting black-and-white video images of the bleak landscape are projected onto the house, while omniscient narration from the novel is played on a hand-cranked reel-to-reel tape player. The abstracted home also becomes a staging ground for vignettes that depict the human fallout from today’s economic crisis.
“The house is not just a set. It’s like this totem object of the foreclosure crisis that tells its own story, and it’s real,” says company member James Gibbs, seated at a New York cafe with his friend and “House/Divided” co-writer, Moe Angelos, who’s also a performer in the show.
As the piece unfolds, we see the house inhabited, then abandoned by the Joads; we see it imperceptibly dismantled and transformed.
“The house is like the classic tragic hero that is caught in this web of circumstances that you cannot change,” Angelos says. “The house is collapsing at the same time the financial system is collapsing — just wiping out capital in all directions and causing all this suffering.”
As a stock ticker streams across the house’s facade, audiences watch documentary footage of an MBA student who speaks about the indignity of losing her house after falling behind on payments; a developer who buys up foreclosed homes and has created a “ladder of distress” for properties in blighted areas; and a man who launched a business cleaning up abandoned properties so that they can be resold. Characters caught up in the sprawling web of the economic system include two foul-mouthed brokers trading mortgage-backed securities and facing the first signs of the financial crash, and a Countrywide agent torn between doing her job and her growing suspicion that something’s rotten in America. Cocksure Wall Street honchos boast confidently to shareholders just before the crash, and audiences hear damning congressional testimony from government regulators.
While the Builders’ Association creates a poetic, textured stage tableau, its purpose, Weems says, “is to bring disparate materials together in order to create new meaning — not just to have a postmodern exercise.”
“There’s a lot of this kind of devised work that is still very much about taking meaning apart and about deconstruction as content and the idea that fragmentation is the form. But I honestly believe that there is real meaning to be conveyed, that there is political content to be conveyed in a deeply poetic way,” Weems says. “We don’t shy away from actually telling the story of the Joads being forced to leave their land.”
The initial inspiration for “House/Divided” can be traced back to the company’s first show, “Master Builder,” which Weems had wanted to revisit as the Builders approached the 20th anniversary of its founding.
“We quickly realized that what a house meant, the whole idea and fabric of the house” — an anchor for the American middle class — “had changed profoundly. So restructuring ‘Master Builder’ turned into looking at the contemporary home, and that led straight into the foreclosure crisis,” Weems says.
The company’s original production of “Master Builder” was based on a photographic collage by Gordon Matta-Clark, a site-specific artist whose work in the 1970s inspired the Builders. He practiced what he called “Anarchitecture,” which Weems describes as “taking buildings apart and cutting them up rather than putting them together.”
To create a spine for the production, Weems wanted to find a classic text that could be woven into the story of the foreclosure crisis. After considering a number of options, the company landed on “The Grapes of Wrath” because it’s about the loss of a physical home and the severing of one’s familial and community roots.
“When we went to the Steinbeck text,” Weems says, “it’s uncanny because if you replace the word ‘farm’ with the word ‘house,’ the role of the bank is exactly the same — the way that Steinbeck writes about the bank as a kind of monster that needs to be fed and needs to keep growing or it will die, the way that the banks repossess the farms and how the Joads are just put out on the road and their shack is torn down. The dispossession is very strong. It’s really powerful.”
The Builders didn’t shy away from grappling with the political in making the piece, especially after they met with a group of undergraduates at Ohio State and asked them what they thought about the foreclosure crisis. “To a person, every student there blamed homeowners,” recalls Gibbs.
In the end, Weems says, the house — this entity once pulsating with life — helps to ground the electronic world in the emotional reality of the current crisis and underlines the theme of a nation increasingly divided between haves and have-nots. “The digital world of the economic crisis is juxtaposed against this very real object and against the story of the Joads, which is undeniably emotional.”