Ash Land — Image via facebook.com/illusiontheater

Ash Land

Transatlantic Love Affair
Directed by Diogo Lopes

Performed on a stage that is as barren as the Dust Bowl farmland where its events take place, Transatlantic Love Affair‘s Ash Land — the company’s third entry into the Illusion Theater‘s Lights Up series — relies almost exclusively on the bodies of its actors to tell its story. Human characters transform seamlessly into wheat fields, pigs, porch swings, car doors, and more, then back into people, all against the backdrop of musician Harper Zwicky’s continuous electric slide guitar soundtrack.

The plot of Ash Land, lightly based on Cinderella, is fairly simple. Ellie Stone (Adelin Phelps) lives an idyllic life on a farm with her parents, John (Derek Lee Miller) and Mary (Isabel Nelson). In the midst of a long drought, Mary falls sick and dies, and her chain-smoking sister, Abigail (Heather Bunch), swoops in to marry John and take over management of the family’s finances. Meanwhile, local banker William Crane (Eric Marinus Nelson) and his kind-hearted son James (Nick Wolf) debate how to respond to the many farmers who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments.

Ash Land — Image via facebook.com/illusiontheaterThe story may be conventional, but the manner in which the ensemble brings it to life is where their originality shines through. Despite the lack of a set or props, the actors seem committed to creating a cinematic sense of scope, and they largely succeed. Through movement, speech, song, and an array of sound effects, they pull the audience into and through their fable, maintaining an extraordinary level of momentum that only falters slightly toward the end, when the joy of storytelling seems to temporarily give way to a need to provoke a climax and then wrap up all of the major plot points.

The eight actors — including ensemble players Peytie McCandless and Allison Witham — function as a unit throughout, each member of the group sliding in and out of human, animal and inanimate roles as required. Miller and Phelps stand out for their portrayals of John and Ellie, but this may simply be because their characters are given the most to do; the other leading roles are largely schematic, and a brief effort to humanize Abigail falls somewhat flat. Ultimately, where Ash Land succeeds is not in traditional character-driven storytelling but rather in the evocation of mood and feeling. Transatlantic Love Affair’s ability to communicate with its audience and keep it engaged is something special, and one looks forward to what they will do next.

Photos by Aaron Fenster

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.