Few if any American novels have ever captured economic desperation better than John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.’’
So it was an inspired notion by the creators of “House/Divided’’ to use Steinbeck’s story — about the dispossession and exploitation of the Joad family and other tenant farmers during the Great Depression — as a living mirror to reflect the human impact of the Great Recession, in particular the housing foreclosure crisis.
Despite stylized-to-the-point-of-stiffness performances by some cast members in the “Grapes of Wrath’’ scenes, “House/Divided’’ adds up to a compelling illustration of the possibilities of multimedia storytelling to capture even a tale as convoluted as the foreclosure crisis, with its mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations and other deliberately obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo.
A vein of compassion runs through “House/Divided,’’ the handiwork of the Builders Association, a New York-based performance troupe. Written by James Gibbs and Moe Angelos, and directed with vigor and imagination by Marianne Weems, the production puts stage technology in the service of a forceful populist message about the social wreckage caused by a runaway banking system, snoozing regulators, and myopic policymakers.
“House/Divided’’ has arrived in Boston, under the auspices of ArtsEmerson, just days after President Obama made income inequality a theme of his State of the Union speech. Note to all those one-percenters who’ve been mewling about being picked on: You should probably steer clear of this production, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through Sunday. It will hurt your easily lacerated feelings still further, since its compassion does not extend to Wall Street’s onetime Masters of the Universe, who brought the nation such grief.
The production showcases a frequently mesmerizing blend of arresting video imagery, live performance, text, voice-over narration of passages from “The Grapes of Wrath,’’ a shape-shifting set by John Cleater and Neal Wilkinson that includes sections from an actual foreclosed home, and an entrancing soundscape created by Dan Dobson. His compositions and his alternately pulsating and percussive sound design generate an aura of danger and crisis that make you feel like you’re witnessing a crime, which in a sense you are.
Weems clearly understands the dramatic and polemical power of juxtaposition. Stock prices circle the façade at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in a constant electronic crawl as brokers conduct a rapid-fire business in mortgage-backed securities at a trading desk. Those scenes alternate with documentary footage of interviews with present-day victims of the foreclosure crisis and dramatizations of the Dust Bowl-era struggles of the Joad family. They’re evicted (by bankers) from their Oklahoma farm home; they trek west to California in hopes of finding work as crop pickers; they encounter still more struggle there.
In an interview from our era, an MBA student and former homeowner speaks of the existential issues that push to the fore when the cataclysm of foreclosure happens to you, saying: “The thing you have to struggle with, is: Who am I?’’ There are interviews, too, with people who capitalized on the foreclosure crisis: a guy who buys foreclosed homes as investments and who keeps close track of troubled properties on what he calls his “ladder of distress’’; another whose business relies on cleaning up abandoned homes so they can be sold by the banks that now own them.
But “House/Divided’’ does not demonize them. This portrait of predatory capitalism at its worst is shot through with glimpses of humanity, as with and the depiction of an underwriter who is clearly troubled by the subprime mortgages her bosses are pressuring her to process.
The production reserves its ire for those in Washington and on Wall Street who fiddled with numbers while the economy burned and people lost their homes, the biggest and most precious investment most of them will ever make. Nor does “House/Divided” spare those who were blinded by ideology as the seeds for the crisis were being planted. Let’s just say that the Builders Association takes a wrecking ball to whatever is left of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s once-formidable mystique.