A call to nature is being heard in Greenwich Village this spring, as theatre company Rady&Bloom Collective Playmaking debut their world premiere of The Upper Room at New Ohio Theater. Marking the end of the company’s two-year Archive Residency with New Ohio and IRT Theaters, The Upper Room is a simple yet transcendent production that invites us into its organically fantastical world.
Written and directed by company founders Jeremy Bloom and Brian Rady, The Upper Room is a music theatre event inspired by the back-to-the-land movement. Set on an island off the coast of Maine, the piece centers on a commune whose way of life is disrupted when a member disappears, forcing the group to confront the rapidly changing environment on which they rely.
Helping to tell this community’s tale is Catherine Brookman’s folk music score, performed beautifully by Brookman (portraying the missing commune member, Hannah) and the cast with accompaniment by Joe White. With a simultaneous weight and effervescence that’s particularly pronounced in the cast’s well-crafted harmonies, Brookman’s music is perfectly suited to the haunting spirituality of the piece, and the resulting soundscape pervades the piece with a mystical quality that defines the production’s tone. Rady&Bloom describe their work as having a sense of “visual lyricism”, and this is readily apparent in the profound simplicity of the piece’s aesthetics. True to the characters’ decision to renounce modern society in favor of nature, the set is appropriately basic and without elaborate props. The piece relies on creative uses of basic set pieces for its environment, such as a round table that serves as the multi-faceted centerpiece of the play. The most creative visual moments result from the overhead projector that sits onstage. Several scenes play with the projector's use of shadow and light, resulting in interesting lighting textures that add visual complexity. In one scene, a textured glass bowl is placed on the projector and reflected on Brookman as she sings, creating a detailed yet subtle pattern that imbues the moment with a handmade ethereality. These musical and visual moments perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the piece, retaining a natural simplicity yet acquiring an otherworldliness that matches the plot, particularly as it verges into a fantastic realm.
The scenes between these beautiful moments of musical/visual poetry, however, are where the piece could be improved. Consisting of dialogue and presentational explanations, these book scenes feel deflated in comparison to the divine musical breaks. Though largely expositional, they also often felt overly vague; for all the time the show spends on specific vegetable crops, most of the details about the commune feel underdeveloped. At the same time, this exposition feels drawn out, leaving the play without enough time to explore interesting possibilities that arise when a new discovery about the group's future is revealed. Yet despite these narrative issues, the aesthetic creativity of The Upper Room manages to prevail, making the piece a captivating escape from New York City into an enticingly natural world.